I posted last week about the high child support collection rate in Allegheny County, in the USA. It has since been pointed out to me that with a case load of 46,500 Allegheny County sent 345 people to jail last year for failure to pay, whereas over here the CSA has a case load of 1.2 million and only 40 people were jailed. This begs the question: should we send more child support evaders to jail, to increase the collection rate? A more sensible way to pose the question would, of course, be: would the collection rate improve significantly if more evaders went to prison, and therefore the chance of a prison sentence for evasion were higher?
The law on commitment to prison for failure to pay child support is contained in ss.39A and 40 of the Child Support Act 1991. Essentially, the CSA may, as a last resort, apply for a warrant of commitment and, if it finds that there has been 'wilful refusal or culpable neglect' to pay on the part of the liable person then the court may commit them to prison for up to six weeks. The prison sentence can be imposed immediately or suspended on terms, for example that the liable person pays the amount due in fixed instalments (745 suspended committal sentences were imposed last year). If the liable person is sent to prison, they will be released upon payment of the amount due, unless they are in custody for some other reason.
The whole idea behind this post presupposes that a greater risk of prison equates to more people paying, but I'm not convinced. Obviously, there will be a few who are prepared to go to prison for a principle, or for whom prison is simply no deterrent. Leaving those few aside, how many of the rest are prepared to take the risk of a prison sentence, just because the chances of getting one are low? My feeling is that for most of those people the threat of prison, no matter how unlikely, would be enough to 'concentrate the mind' and persuade them to pay. After all, it is common knowledge that non-payment can result in prison, but the statistics for how many are sent to prison, although freely available (see below), are almost certainly not common knowledge.
So, is there any statistical correlation between between numbers sent to prison and collection rates? I'm not aware of any, and the CSA enforcement figures for the financial years from 2004 to 2010 (see here, p.23) do not suggest any such correlation - the number of committal sentences has remained very low, whilst the total collections received have steadily increased. Going back to the American example, I suspect that the numbers sent to prison are consistently much higher across that country than they are here, and yet their overall compliance rates appear to be similar to ours (the article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review quoted sample rates of between 66 and 80 percent for 'on-time payments', whereas the CSA's latest figure for '% cases with a positive outcome', albeit using a slightly different criteria, is 77% - see here, p.17).
My answer to the original question, therefore, would be 'no'. In any event, as has also been pointed out to me (and as was my view anyway), this is not a criminal matter, and surely it is in everyone's interests, particularly the children concerned, that the parent is out and working to pay off their arrears, rather than languishing at Her Majesty's pleasure?