High Court Dismisses Claim Challenging Child Maintenance Service Enforcement in Judicial Review Case

Citation: [2023] EWHC 3207 (Admin)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the High Court of Justice case of Preston Paris Ingold & Ors, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, a claim for judicial review was brought by single parent families challenging the alleged failures by the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) to collect and enforce child maintenance payments due to them under the Child Support Act 1991. The claim mobilized several legal debates surrounding the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), particularly the rights protected under Article 1 of the First Protocol (A1P1), Article 8, and Article 14, as well as principles pertaining to the proper administration of justice in the context of domestic legislation.

Key Facts

The claimants were single mothers (identified as AA, BB, and CC), and their respective children, who were victims of domestic abuse, coupled with the adult child (C1) of a single mother, all of whom had been allegedly deprived of child maintenance by absconding non-resident parents (NRPs). They posited that the failure by the CMS to enforce child support payments constituted a breach of ECHR rights, specifically under A1P1 regarding property rights, Article 8 related to respect for family life, and the prohibition of discrimination under Article 14. They also argued that such failures demonstrated the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions’ breach of duty under the Child Support Act 1991, invoking principles derived from the Padfield case.

The court scrutinized the claim from the perspective of a range of ECHR Articles and domestic statutory duties, as well as general principles of administrative law. The following legal principles formed the crux of the judgment:

  1. Article 8 ECHR: The court acknowledged a potential positive duty upon the state to undertake actions protecting individuals from domestic economic abuse. However, it was held that such a duty did not extend to ensuring financial benefits or pecuniary support.

  2. A1P1 ECHR: The court established that A1P1 did not include a right to state support or benefits, including the enforcement of child maintenance.

  3. Article 14 ECHR (Ambit and Discrimination): Both indirect and Thlimmenos discrimination were examined, with the court concluding there was no differential treatment requiring a remedy under Article 14, as single mothers affected by domestic abuse were not determined to be in a different or unique situation regarding CMS enforcement action.

  4. Padfield Principle: The principle established in Padfield was used to determine whether the Secretary of State’s actions frustrated the purpose of the Child Support Act 1991. The court held that the discretional powers afforded by the Act were exercised appropriately by the CMS and did not frustrate the statutory purpose.

  5. Margin of Appreciation and Proportionality: Throughout the judgment, the principle of margin of appreciation played a central role, assigning a degree of deference to the CMS in fulfilling its duties within a broad statutory discretion.

  6. Timeliness: A key procedural aspect underscored was that claims for judicial review must be made “promptly and in any event within three months after the grounds for making the claim first arose,” following the Civil Procedure Rules 54.5(1).

Outcomes

The judgment found that there was no systemic issue with the way the CMS or the DMG collected and enforced child maintenance payments. Rather, the CMS’s actions were found to be largely in pursuit of the NRP, by way of enforcement and maintenance collection, demonstrating concerted efforts rather than systemic negligence or error. Specific failures or missteps highlighted by the claimants could not be aggregated into a finding of systematic failure or discrimination under ECHR Articles. The claim for judicial review was dismissed on all grounds.

Conclusion

The court’s decision in the case clarifies the intersection of domestic enforcement actions within the framework of the ECHR and the Child Support Act 1991. It emphasizes that individual failings within an administrative scheme do not necessarily amount to an infringement of ECHR rights, particularly when comprehensive legislative remedies are available. Furthermore, the principle of timeliness in administrative law was forcefully reasserted, underscoring the need for prompt legal recourse to ensure just and timely administration of complex legislative schemes. In sum, the judgment sheds light on the limitations of applying ECHR principles to domestic statutory duties, especially concerning economic entitlements and the extent of positive obligations on the state under Article 8.

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