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Child maintenance enforcement - liability orders

Both parents are legally responsible for financially supporting any children.

If the Child Support Agency (CSA) or the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) arranged maintenance under the 1993, 2003 or 2012 Child Maintenance schemes, and you don’t pay, they can go to court to get an order called a liability order. This then allows them to take further action against you.

This page tells you more about what happens if a liability order is made against you.

When you're most likely to have a liability order made against you

If you’re in arrears you can ask to negotiate repayments directly with the CSA or CMS. If this isn't possible, they will try to deduct the money you owe from your wages, benefits or bank account.

If you don't keep to any arrangement to repay the arrears, the CSA or CMS can apply to the sheriff court for a liability order. This will allow them to try to recover the arrears of maintenance in other ways.

Once a liability order has been made, the CSA or CMS doesn't have to use it straightaway. They may wait to see if you can keep to the arrangement. If they choose to use the liability order, they have to act within certain time limits, depending on which enforcement measure they use.

The liability order only covers arrears. You’ll have to make a separate arrangement to cover the on-going maintenance payments you still have to pay.

How is a liability order made?

If you have child maintenance arrears, the CSA or CMS will write to you, setting out how much money you owe and stating that you should make a suitable repayment arrangement.

If you don’t do this, sheriff court officials will serve you with notice that the CSA has applied for a liability order. You then have 21 days to object to the liability order being made. If you live outside the UK, you must be given 28 days' notice. If you want to object to the application, you should do so in writing, by returning the notice, stating the grounds of your objections and enclosing any evidence. If you do object, a hearing will be held in the sheriff court and you will be sent a summons giving the time and date of the court hearing.

The CSA or CMS will check that you haven’t disputed a decision or made an appeal before they apply for a liability order. They won’t apply if it looks likely that, following the dispute or appeal, the amount of maintenance you have to pay will be reduced. However, even if you have an outstanding appeal this doesn’t always mean that they won’t apply for a liability order.

You can make a suitable repayment offer to avoid court action at any time.

The sheriff court may decide not to make an order if you seem to be co-operating with the CSA or CMS. However, the CSA or CMS may still ask for the order to be granted on the understanding that it won’t be enforced if you continue to co-operate.

If you don’t go to the court hearing the sheriff may still consider any objections you have made and the CSA or CMS may still obtain the order. If you do go to court, the sheriff may adjourn the case, to allow more time for you to negotiate repayments with the CSA or CMS.

What happens when a liability order has been made?

Once a liability order has been granted, the CSA or CMS can take further action, for example:

  • use sheriff officers for an attachment and exceptional attachment, which may involve sheriff officers going to your home to value your belongings that could then be sold to pay off your arrears; or
  • if you own property, it can apply to court for an inhibition order. This controls what you can do with your property and will, for example, prevent you from selling it while the inhibition order is in place; or
  • arrest funds in bank accounts.

If these methods are not successful, the CSA or CMS can take further enforcement action. They can apply to court for an order to:

  • disqualify you from driving
  • send you to prison.

Registration of the debt

When a liability order has been granted, the CSA or CMS can arrange for the debt to be registered in the sheriff court nearest to where you live. Registration of the debt may affect your ability to get credit in the future.

Can you appeal against a liability order?

There is no right of appeal against a liability order. However, you may be able to apply to a sheriff court to have a liability order cancelled. This is called setting aside the order.

An order can be set aside for example, if you received no notice of the original proceedings or if there’s evidence of improper action by the CSA or CMS. Get expert advice about applying for a liability order to be set aside.

Fees

If you have to go to court for a liability order, you will have to pay court fees as well as an administration fee to the CSA or CMS.

Sheriff officers

Once a liability order has been granted, this may result in sheriff officers taking your goods away so they can be sold. The proceeds will be used to pay your arrears. You must try to negotiate any repayment arrangements direct with the sheriff officers rather than the CSA or CMS. However, the CSA or CMS will instruct the sheriff officers not to take further action if you make a lump sum payment to pay off the arrears.

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