Tuesday, December 29, 2009

'You've bankrupted my dad'

'You've bankrupted my dad': 13-year-old girl to sue Child Support Agency after legal battle left father with crippling debts

By Andy Dolan
Last updated at 7:30 PM on 29th December 2009

A teenager is sueing the Child Support Agency in a landmark court case accusing them of trying to destroy her 'hero' father and happy family life to pay off the mother she no longer wants to see.

Emma Chapelhow is launching legal proceedings after the CSA threatened to throw her dad David in jail, seize her home and pet pony to help pay £43,000 in back-dated payments they claim he owes.

Now the 13-year-old girl - who instructs her own solicitor - will become the first minor in England to mount a judicial challenge to the CSA.

Emma Chapelhow
David Chapelhow

Landmark case: Emma Chapelhow claims legal battles have forced her father David, right, to live in a caravan to make ends meet

In 2007, a judge ruled that Emma no longer needed to stay in her mother's care after the youngster told a court hearing she wanted to live with her father on his farm in Wellow, Notts.

Her father David, 42, claims the decade-long legal battle he fought in the family courts against his ex-partner Janette Plummer and the Government agency left him with crippling debts.

The former graphic designer is currently living in a caravan in a muddy field with Emma and his wife Gair, while they rent out their farmhouse to make ends meet.

He paid maintenance to his ex-partner while Emma lived with her in Brighton, but he has challenged the CSA's 'outrageous' demands for the backdated cash.

After years of wrangling he was handed the huge bill in 2006 and told his lifestyle was 'inconsistent with income'. David says that's all down to the CSA believing his ex-partner's 'fantastical' claims of his luxury living.

Emma was left in tears back in September when bailiffs acting for the CSA came to the farm and allegedly threatened to take her pet pony Pringle to help meet the payments. Since then her father has been involved in further court hearings and the matter has still not been resolved.

Now the teenager has warned the CSA that because she has not had a satisfactory response she intends to start legal action.

In a letter to CSA chief executive Mark Grimshaw, Emma wrote: 'My name is Emma Chapelhow and I am 13 years old. In 2007 I moved to live with my father. The judge said that I am old enough and able to instruct my solicitor, which I did.

'The court moved me to my father. They said that my mother could not see me again. I am very happy living with my Dad and Gair, who has spent 10 years fighting for me. He is a hero.

'I know my dad spent everything he had fighting for me and I know that he has no money left, and because of this he rents his house and we live in a caravan. My Mum does not have to pay my Dad for me now and this is unfair.'

Emma Chapelhow and horse Pringle

'Outrageous' demands: The CSA threatened to seize Emma's pet pony, Pringle, to help pay £43,000 in backpayments it claims her father owes

Emma is suing under Article 2 of the Child Support Act 1991 - a guiding principle of the Agency which orders CSA officials to 'have regard to the welfare of any child likely to be affected by his decision'.

She believes that the CSA's action breaches the code as it will bankrupt her father and force her into poverty, which is completely at odds with Gordon Brown's government policies.

Emma said: "I do not understand why the CSA are doing this and why my mother is putting money before my future. I've asked her to stop all this because she can, if she wanted.

'I will take legal action because the CSA have failed to protect me and are still failing to protect me. How can taking my home and financial stability away to pay the mother who the courts are protecting me from not affect my welfare?'

David, who is jointly taking legal action along with his daughter, said: 'They are ignoring her needs as a child and putting both the CSA and the mother she no longer wishes to see before her.

'And to make matters worst when she has written to them they about possible legal action they have ignored her letters too and keep writing back to me.

'Enforcement action will have no effect except to put Emma in child poverty.'

The National Association for Child Support Action (NACSA) claims Emma is the first child in England to sue the CSA.

Since it was created in 1993 the CSA has been constantly under fire. According to the Department for Work and Pensions one-in-four decisions made by agency officials are simply wrong.

Emma's mother Janette Plummer, who lives in a large detached home in Brighton with new husband Lee, has not paid any maintenance to her ex-partner in the three years since her daughter moved in with her dad.

She has said the decision to award custody to Mr Chapelhow had her support and claims that the backdated maintenance would bankrupt him are untrue.

A Child Support Agency spokesman said they could not comment on individual cases, but it was not their policy to carry out any enforcement orders which could affect any child's living conditions.

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