Child Maintenance Enforcement: What Powers Do The CMS Have?

emily gordon brown
Emily Gordon BrownLegal Assessment Specialist @ Lawhive
Updated on 10th January 2024

Parents have a legal responsibility to financially support their children.

Sometimes these arrangements are made privately. In other circumstances, the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) arranges maintenance payments.


The CMS can take certain actions when a non-resident parent (sometimes referred to as the "paying parent,") doesn't pay child maintenance on time or in full.

In this article, we'll explore what enforcement action the CMS can take, and how they might go about it if a paying parent fails to fulfill their financial responsibilities.

What should a receiving parent do if child maintenance payments stop?

If you've arranged child maintenance through the CMS, they can help you if the paying parent stops contributing.

However, depending on whether your arrangement uses direct pay or the collect and pay scheme, they may not know this automatically.

Therefore, if payments stop, you should tell the CMS as soon as possible.

If you've made private arrangements related to child maintenance payment, you should first talk to the paying parent and see if the problem can be resolved.

If this isn't possible, or the paying parent outright refuses to pay back what they owe or continue payments, you can get in touch with the CMS and ask them to help collect child maintenance in the future.

What happens if a paying parent has child maintenance arrears?

If parents use direct pay, the CMS might take action for non-payment by moving the arrangement to the Collect and Pay service in the first instance.

If you use the CMS Collect and Pay service and fail to make a payment or pay the full amount, the CMS will get in touch via phone calls and letters. Usually, they'll tell you that they plan to start enforcement action within a week unless you:

  • Agree to pay the full missed amount; and

  • Stick to the original child maintenance decision.

If no agreement is reached at this stage, the CMS can take action to collect the money owed.

Payments made directly between parents are not monitored by the CMS.

However, if a parent doesn't pay what they owe on time, the person receiving the money should tell the CMS who should take action to make sure the money is paid, and any overdue amounts are recovered.

What enforcement powers does the CMS have?

Without a court order, the CMS can collect overdue payments from the paying parent by:

  • Taking money directly from their salary (deduction from earnings order or deduction from earnings request);

  • Taking money from the paying parent's bank accounts (deduction order);

  • Taking money from benefits;

  • Collecting assets from a deceased paying parent's estate.

The CMS can also obtain a court-issued liability order, which gives them more powers. In England and Wales, this could include using bailiffs to take belongings or getting a court order to sell belongings, including property.

In Scotland, powers include asking a sheriff for a payment charge or freezing assets to stop them from being sold or transferred.

In Great Britain, a successful court application could also lead to a prison sentence, disqualification from driving, or passport suspension.

For parents with a private arrangement in terms of child maintenance, they need to switch to the Collect and Pay service if they want the CMS to step in and take enforcement action against a paying parent who has fallen into arrears.

Child Support (Enforcement) Act 2023

The Child Support (Enforcement) Act 2023 received Royal Assent on July 2023 and aims to speed up the use of enforcement measures for collecting child maintenance in England, Wales, and Scotland.

It gives the Secretary of State the power to issue a liability order without the need for the CMS to go to court.

From 2nd October 2023 to 24th November 2023, a consultation was initiated by the Government to seek views on these proposed legislative changes that will affect the enforcement of child maintenance arrears.

Deduction from earnings order

If you work or get a pension from your employer, the CMS can tell them to take money from your pay or pension to cover child maintenance.

The CMS doesn't have to go to court to get this order and your employer has to take the money they ask for from your pay and send it directly to them. If they don't do this, the CMS can take them to court.

The CMS will tell your employer to leave a certain amount for your living costs and, if the full amount can't be deducted, they'll only take what they can.

Your employer can also take up to £1 from your earnings each time they send money directly to the CMS.

Deductions from earnings request

If you are in His Majesty's Armed Force, the CMS will contact the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and ask them to deduct the owed child maintenance amount directly from your wages. This is called a deduction from earnings request.

Deductions from bank accounts

The CMS can ask your bank or building society to take child maintenance directly from your account without your approval or court permission.

These deductions can either be regular payments or one-offs. Your bank or building society might charge you an administration fee for each deduction.

When can a liability order be made against you?

If you owe child maintenance money, you can try to negotiate repayment directly with the CMS. If that's not possible, they may try to take the money owed from your wages, benefits, or bank. A court order isn't required for them to do this.

If you don't stick to the agreed-upon repayment plan, the CMS can go to court to get a liability order, which gives them to power to recover overdue maintenance in other ways.

The CMS might not take action right away after getting a liability order, however, they must act within specific time limits depending on the enforcement measure they choose.

Can the court refuse a liability order?

The court can refuse a liability order. If this is the case, the CMS might consider appealing the court's decision.

Without a liability order, they can't take specific legal action, like using bailiffs, however, they may be able to explore other collection actions that don't involve going to court.

Does the paying parent have to pay for a liability order?

Yes, in some cases the CMS might ask a paying parent to pay for a liability order.

If there's a liability order against you for unpaid child maintenance and you need to pay for it, you will be made aware of this and given a distinct reference number for it.

When making a payment for a liability order, it's important to prove the liability order reference number alongside it to make sure that payment goes towards it. If you don't provide this reference number, any payment made might go towards your regular child maintenance payment or the child maintenance arrears that you owe.

To avoid this from happening, it's a good idea to set up a Direct Debit for regular child maintenance and use a separate standing order for liability orders. This way, you can keep each payment separate and avoid any confusion.

Do you have to keep paying regular child maintenance when you have a liability order?

Yes, you must keep paying regular child maintenance even if you have a liability order. If you don't, you will accumulate more debt which could lead to an application for another liability order.

Can you have more than one liability order?

The court can grant separate liability orders for different periods of child maintenance arrears.

If you have more than one liability order, you should keep a clear record of reference numbers to make sure payments are correctly allocated to each one.

Can you appeal against a liability order?

Yes, it is possible to appeal against a liability order.

Appeals go in front of a family court judge and must be made within 21 days of the original order being granted.

How long does it take to get a liability order?

The legal process for getting a liability order could take anywhere from a few weeks to several months.

Get help with child maintenance from Lawhive's solicitors

If you're going through a divorce or separation, our child maintenance lawyers are here to help you.

We understand that your children are your top priority. Our Family Law team can help you reach an agreement on child maintenance payments, change existing arrangements, or address problems if payments have stopped.

To get started, contact our legal assessment team for a free case assessment.

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