Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
“Everybody Knows“, Leonard Cohen
About 10 months ago I became annoyed with the very basic child maintenance calculator provided by the Child Maintenance Agency (CMA) and decided I could copy it, refine it and then, greatly improve it.
Sure, the CMA’s calculator carries out the calculation but it lacks real thought, care and class. It introduced a new formula – that based on gross income – that was not as easy to understand as I first thought. In fact, in places, it was quite complicated. It introduced nil, flat, reduced, basic and basic plus rates. It no longer became the sort of calculation you could quickly scribble out on a piece of paper.
Sometimes, life is complicated but in my humble opinion, if a government decides to make something as important as child maintenance complicated it has an obligation to make its delivery to its citizens as understandable as possible. The CMA’s online calculator is not good enough for such an important function. So, at first, I was just irritated at the lack of care in the delivery. I could not see how such a basic calculator could help parents to communicate about the appropriate level of child maintenance. The child maintenance result was not explained; it could not easily be emailed or otherwise electronically communicated to the other parent. Because the calculator did not care to explain itself, its results could not easily be queried by the parents who needed to understand its workings in order to reach agreement.
So, I decided to take the child maintenance calculator and make it better. It proved to be very time-consuming. I wanted to give up quite a few times, frustrated at my inability to make the damn thing work and as the months passed I started to become less Mr Mardy Bum and more Mr Angry. To be honest, if it wasn’t for getting the right hump I would not have finished this calculator. But my beef was not with my stumbling efforts at coding but rather with the attitude demonstrated by various ministers responsible for key policies.
Why so angry?
So, why did feeling angry with the government’s treatment of families make me even attempt to build a child maintenance calculator? Here’s why, quickly:
- It was abundantly clear that the government would withdraw family legal aid anyway despite the warnings from most respectable quarters about the adverse impact on vulnerable families;
- The government held up mediation as the panacea: withdrawing legal aid would matter not a jot we were told. But in its wisdom, the government thought it unimportant to highlight the fact people could still get means-tested legal aid for mediation. I mean, really let them know: spend a small amount of the millions that would be saved publicising the availability of legal aid for mediation. The result was a policy car crash; mediation referrals fell off a cliff. Litigants in person, unable to afford legal help have flocked to the courts – the very outcome the government was trying to avoid.
- Even before family legal aid was knifed in the back in April of last year, high street solicitors’ firms were disappearing from the high street faster than my mum’s scones as soon as they came out of the oven. It suddenly became impossible for a very significant part of the public to get legal advice at at time when their families were in crisis.
- The family courts are reeling from successive budget cuts. The public counter service intended to help the public used to open between the hours of 10.00 am to 4.00 pm. Then it was reduced to the morning only. Now, it doesn’t really exist at all. You have to make an appointment if you want to see someone at the public counter. Think about that. You have to phone up the court (hoping the phone gets answered) and make an appointment. But if you want to make a court application you have to do so by post. You can’t just drop it off at the court like you used to. Such court applications by litigants in person are, understandably, often incorrectly drafted. They are then sent back by the court. In the days of access to a public counter you could at least go in with the papers and have the usually helpful staff at least iron out the worst mistakes and try to put people on the right track. To believe you could actually walk into a court to seek help. Literally, have access to justice. The court service is no longer a service to all its citizens. It discriminates against those who are poor or of modest income who cannot afford legal advice.
- Allied to the policy decision to deprive the poorest citizens of legal advice is a wholesale reform of the welfare state that has driven more children into officially defined poverty. A cabinet defined by high privilege knowingly consigns the poorest and youngest amongst us to the direst of life outcomes. I find that unforgivable.
All in all, I just get the strongest impression that the government doesn’t give a toss. It is an abdication of responsibility by the state to enact such policies and hope that the private sector will come up with the answers. It may deliver some solutions but it will, inevitably, be driven by the bottom line: it will cherry pick those citizens it is interested in and filter out the rest. The not for profit sector will soldier on but comes under an increasingly heavy burden.
For individuals to do nothing in the face of official indifference is as much an abdication of responsibility as that being demonstrated by the state. So, as a lawyer, like many others, who believes that access to justice is a fundamental principle that must be protected I have to do something rather than nothing. Partly, that is why I started this blog, rather than going back to, say, the voluntary CAB roster of many years ago. I realised that I could reach more people in one day using my blog than I could in a whole year of once a month voluntary sittings at CAB.
And this is why my small, further effort at doing ‘something’ rather than ‘nothing’ led me to create a proper child maintenance calculator to help parents towards that difficult conversation about money. To allow parents to communicate more easily about the appropriate level of child maintenance in circumstances where they no longer have the assistance of lawyers, the courts or the state.