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The Child Support Act - Unworkable Legislation

Families Apart Require Equality (FARE) Family Law Bulletin January 2003 Page One.

Author: Bruce Tichbon Contact details and information about FARE.


The Child Support Act 1991 at a glance seems to be reasonable legislation. After all, it is important that the Government affirms the need for parents to contribute towards the cost of supporting their children. But instead of being a fair and reasonable system, the Child Support Act is grossly unfair, socially disruptive and probably does not even make money for the Government. The Act could have avoided most of the serious shortcomings it suffers, but opportunities to correct its chronic faults (such as the Trapski Review in 1994) have failed to address the issues.

What Is the Child Support Act

The Child Support Act created a large Government department called the Child Support Agency (with about 400 staff, and a budget of about $42 million per year). The Agency effectively works both on behalf of Government (by collecting money that offsets a small part of the Domestic Purposes Benefit or DPB) and on behalf of custodial parents (those not on the DPB receive the maintenance money through the Child Support Agency). Collection of child support is virtually assured by giving the Child Support Agency almost absolute legal power to collect money directly from workers pay packets, strip their bank accounts and impose punitive penalties.

Putting The Child Support Act In Context

Over the past 30 years the Government has intervened heavily in the New Zealand family. The direct cost to the taxpayer has increased from almost nothing 30 years ago, to now be approximately $3 billion per year. (This is made up of the DPB and associated benefits such as family support, accommodation supplement, special allowances etc, the Family Court and CYF Services).

The DPB was intended originally to be a safety net to support families that had been abandoned by the breadwinner. The officials who administer the DPB (Work and Income NZ or WINZ) have allowed it to become a vehicle for radically redefining the family. In most cases it is now a means to give custodians financial independence from their spouses, and to give custodians the right and ability to live with or without the other parent of the child (almost always the father). The DPB is given freely and without consultation with the father, who is generally left outmaneuvered and without the means to defend his role and stake in the family. Through the DPB the Government effectively funds and facilitates the breakdown of marriages and acts as financial guarantor to ensure a sole parent household and other non traditional family structures can be formed and sustained. On the flip side, many have seen the DPB as giving them the right to abandon their families and children, because the Government will pick up the financial responsibility.

By giving out the DPB in the manner they do, WINZ has become (by stealth) one of the most important social policy makers in New Zealand. WINZ has helped materially to drive the high divorce rate and huge number of sole parent families in New Zealand (27% of children now live in sole parent families). WINZ could and should be managing the DPB according to rules that avoid these outcomes.

The Child Support Act helps to ensure an income for (mostly) mothers without the father being present. It is touted by its supporters as improving the welfare of children by helping to ensure their financial support. In fact it almost certainly reduces the welfare of children by aiding the formation of sole-parent families where, according to a large body of international research, children's welfare is reduced compared to two biological parent family situations.

Faced with this policy environment that has in most cases helped the breakdown of their families, most non-custodial parents feel aggrieved about paying child support, on top of the mostly unsatisfactory (and often nonexistent) access and custody rights most liable parents and their children have with each other.

The Child Support Act in New Zealand has won the approval of the women's/mother's lobby and the anguish of the family/men's/father's lobby. This is because the Act transfers huge financial advantage to custodial parents (who are almost always mothers). The lynchpin is the powerful but unwritten orthodoxy in New Zealand that favors mothers getting possession and control of the children after divorce (ie preferential sole maternal custody). This orthodoxy is favored by the Family Court, counselors, and administrators throughout the family law industry, and especially politicians, who are keen to court the women's vote. Without preferential sole maternal custody the Child Support Act would disadvantage mothers and fathers much more equally.

Next: The Many Unacceptable Flaws Of The Child Support Act