The Times

Sunday June 20 1999

Judge refuses to pay child maintenance

by Paul Nuki and Chris Dignan
The Times

A JUDGE who specialises in family law is facing a financial assessment by the Child Support Agency (CSA) after refusing to pay maintenance for two of his children.

The case, thought to be the first to involve a senior member of the judiciary, will embarrass the legal fraternity, not least because the judge's former wife is a practising lawyer. It is also expected to pose questions about the judge's ability to be seen to be acting impartially when he has to preside over cases that involve disputed child maintenance payments.

Although all judges must declare any "direct pecuniary" interest that is relevant to a case, personal issues do not have to be declared.

"It is a matter for the judge to determine if there is a problem in hearing a case," said a spokesman for the lord chancellor's department.

Peter Heppel, 51, was made a judge on the northeastern circuit in March last year. Now his promotion, which brought with it a salary of £88,000 a year, threatens to be marred by his failure to maintain good financial relations with Janice Coulton, his former wife and the mother of his four children.

The couple divorced in 1995 and Coulton - who remarried last December - now works as a solicitor in York.

Earlier this year she is understood to have asked the CSA to secure maintenance payments from Heppel for her two youngest children.

Heppel responded by appointing Wake Smith, a Sheffield firm of solicitors, to fight the action.

Yesterday he described Coulton's claim as "misconceived" and insisted that she was not entitled to any child maintenance.

"Since we separated in 1991 my ex-wife has never before this year sought maintenance from me for any of our four children for the simple reason that they continued to live with me and I continue to look after them," said Heppel, who believes the leaking of the information was designed to cause embarrassment.

"There has been no change in the family circumstances and accordingly her claim to the CSA is misconceived. There is no question of her not 'properly receiving' child maintenance because she is not entitled to it."

Coulton said she regretted that the dispute had been made public. She declined to comment further. "I don't think what is going on is a matter of any secrecy," she said.

Sources at the CSA said last week that the case was unlikely to be resolved easily. They expect it to be passed to the organisation's "technical section" before any final judgment could be made.

Set up in 1993, the CSA is responsible for the administration of the Child Support Act and for the assessment, collection and enforcement of maintenance payments in all new cases.

In February the government announced a radical overhaul of the agency, with maintenance payments to be assessed in future by means of a simple percentage deduction from the absent parent's pay.

This will replace the current system where CSA staff must assemble dozens of pieces of information to calculate an absent parent's payments.

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.