The penalties for failure to pay child maintenance, which can be severe, are not affected by the statute of limitations that normally applies to debts.
A father who had failed to pay maintenance for several years recently found himself subject to a liability order requiring payment. When this was unsuccessful in producing the payment, it was followed many years later by an order under section 39 of the Child Support Act 1991 whereby the court withdrew his licence to drive. The court also had the option to send the man to prison.
The father appealed against the order, arguing that his debt for the maintenance was subject to the statute of limitations, which (in simple terms) provides that a debt which is not pursued for six years can no longer be recovered. The argument went to the Court of Appeal, which heard that the man’s liability to pay maintenance was established in 1996 and the liability order was obtained in 2002. The man argued that the statute of limitations applied to the order because it was an attempt to obtain payment of ‘a sum recoverable by virtue of any enactment’ (i.e. under the law).
The Court rejected this line of reasoning however. The orders that were possible – a driving ban or imprisonment – would not themselves produce payment of the arrears of maintenance. They did not lead directly to the recovery of a sum of money and so the statute of limitations did not apply.