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SARS could be the vital answer in fixing South Africa’s broken child maintenance system

SARS could be the vital answer in fixing South Africa’s broken child maintenance system
Illustrative image: (Photos: Wikipedia | Felix Dlangamandla)

The child maintenance system in South Africa is in crisis. Primary caregivers, mostly women, wait years to get maintenance for their children. Perhaps involving the South African Revenue Service is the solution.

The child maintenance system in South Africa has been broken for the longest time. Primary caregivers often report how the system is failing them as they return to the maintenance offices for months, if not years, on end in an attempt to get maintenance for their minor children.

The success stories are few and far between and in many instances, women — who are still predominantly the primary caregivers — are being impoverished in the process. 

Here, I am not only referring to the general impoverishment that befalls all claimants seeking child maintenance, but specifically women who are made poorer by the very system that is supposed to alleviate their plight.

Increasingly, there are reports of matters being postponed as respondents fail to appear when summoned to do so, or failing to submit the required documents requested. This results in unnecessary delays as respondents are given chance upon chance, while claimants are required to suffer in silence. 

Not only is it the financial loss of receiving no or inadequate maintenance, primary caregivers also lose in terms of the time spent at court, the additional lost income due to absences from work, loss of leave days in order to attend court, and further losses caused by incurring expenses that will never be recovered. 

Then there are the gender-specific losses that predominantly women seem to bear: 

  • Not being allowed section 11 subsistence and travel allowance (taxi fare/airfare);
  • The cost of having to make photocopy bundles for section 10 maintenance enquiries;
  • The R5,000 required by the sheriff as a security fee in order to execute a warrant of execution for the attachment of assets in terms of section 27 of the Maintenance Act; and
  • The payment of a R1,000 appeal fee for mothers wanting to appeal an existing maintenance order in terms of section 25 of the Maintenance Act. While regulation 15 is silent about this appeal fee, courts rely on regulation 51 to exact payment.

Is it any wonder that women are being impoverished by the current system? So what is the solution?

It has previously been suggested that the South African Revenue Service (SARS) is best suited to collect child maintenance. This is based on the New Zealand model, which — while far from being perfect — is much more successful as far as the collection of maintenance is concerned.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The struggle for child maintenance in the lower courts — what’s a single parent to do?

When the suggestion was initially made, SARS was in shambles at the time and even collecting taxes seemed an insurmountable task. In recent years, the situation has, however, improved drastically. Now, visits to one’s nearest SARS office to file one’s taxes are not even required.

South Africa could undoubtedly benefit from such a system as far as child maintenance is concerned. The benefits that such a change could hold are numerous. These include:

  • The application of a more objective standard to determine the amount due;
  • The elimination of possible intimidation by respondents;
  • Less time spent at maintenance offices;
  • Less financial strain on a primary caregiver;
  • Reduced emotional strain on the primary caregiver and ultimately the child;
  • A shorter implementation period, i.e. less back and forth between the parties; and
  • Forced accountability on defaulting parents.

Isn’t it time that government considers implementing an alternate system, instead of flogging a dead horse? DM

Dr Carmel Jacobs is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Private Law at the University of the Western Cape.


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