UK Family Law Reform

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Father jailed for refusing to pay child maintenance despite ex-wife’s support

Frances Gibb, Legal Editor

A lawyer was jailed yesterday for refusing to pay child support to his former wife, despite her pleas that he should not be given a custodial sentence.

Michael Cox, 43, had argued that their three children spent half their lives with him and that he should not therefore have to pay the Child Support Agency (CSA) for the time that they spent with their mother. Cox – a legal adviser to the campaign group Fathers 4 Justice – called the system “oppressive, unjust and discriminatory” towards men.

The court was told yesterday that Cox was required to pay £365 a month in maintenance to his former wife, Lesley Peach, 39, but she did not have to pay anything to him. In March, Cox, who has five children, was given a 42-day prison sentence for failing to pay the charge, but the sentence was suspended on condition that he began to pay monthly instalments.

Yesterday he heavily criticised the CSA as he was jailed for 42 days. A letter from Ms Peach was read out in court begging magistrates not to give Cox a custodial sentence because of the impact on her family. Prosecutors said that his former wife would appreciate more financial support.

Cox, who represented himself, told Southampton Magistrates’ Court: “I have been referred to as an absent father, but that’s not what I am. I’m a father who well knows the obligation to his children and I discharge that obligation. I feed all of my children, I clothe them, I house them – that’s what I spend my money on. The Child Support Agency gives me no assistance for that and requires me to spend the money twice.

“I say that makes it oppressive, unjust and discriminatory in its action. In this case you have two established families living in equilibrium.

“My ex-wife lives a mile away from me and the children pass easily between the two households. They spend half of the time with me and half of the time with their mother.

“My ex-wife is not a little old lady living in a shoe, reaching in the back of a cupboard for the last tin of beans. This is not about the law. According to the law I’m dead in the water – I’m bang to rights.”

Cox asked magistrates to show discretion and spare him jail so that he could continue to earn money to pay for the care of his children.

Tom Concannon, for the prosecution, said that since the couple separated in 1994 Cox had amassed debts to the CSA of £45,000.

The court was told that Cox was required to pay because the children were officially resident with their mother.

In a letter to magistrates, Ms Peach said that if her former husband were sent to jail, she would have to give up her job to look after the children.

Reacting to the sentence, Cox, of Hythe, Southampton, said: “It is outrageous that people are released early from prison for serious crimes and yet I’m being locked up as a caring father.”

Cox, of Hythe, Southampton, was supported in court by his current wife, Beth Cox, 32, who sobbed as he was jailed.

The junior school teacher had sat next to him taking notes as a “McKenzie Friend” – an adviser the family court allows defendants without lawyers.

Cox shook hands with Mr Concannon and quietly congratulated him. He at first refused to be handcuffed, saying that it was “unnecessary and undignified”, but a female security officer insisted and locked cuffs on his wrists. She explained that she was following “Home Office rules”.

Outside court, Beth Cox said: “When dangerous criminals are going free from prison because of overcrowding, to jail Michael for being a good father is unbelievable.

“I am simply gutted. I love Michael, and I love him exactly because he is such a good father, and this is simply wrong.

“It just defies all logic and sense. The sentence has impoverished two families on both sides – both him and his ex-wife – and the taxpayer will now spend £40,000 jailing him.”

Outside court, members of Fathers 4 Justice reacted angrily to the sentence. The group’s founder, Matt O’Connor, said: “It is utterly disgusting to jail a very courageous and brave individual and a loving father.

“He is the first person from Fathers 4 Justice to go to prison on this very noble principle of standing against the CSA. But I think he has shown how the CSA persecutes good fathers.

“He has also shown up the utter incompetence of the family courts.”

Agency woes

— The CSA was set up by the Tories under Margaret Thatcher in 1990 but did not come into force until 1993

— In 1998 an NAO report showed that a quarter of all CSA estimates were wrong and the errors cost children £15.8 million a year in missed contributions

— In November 2003 the Government apologised to parents over problems with the new computer system, which cost an estimated £456 million

— In 2004 its chief executive, Doug Smith, announced that he was resigning, admitting that he was “seriously disappointed” with the CSA’s performance

— Last year, it was said the agency had an estimated £3 billion in unrecovered debt and a backlog of 333,000 cases. It was taking an average of 26 weeks to process a child-support claim

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