The Times

January 7 2001

CSA urged teenager to sue father for school fees

Marcello Mega
The Sunday Times

Nicole Lavelle: estranged
THE Child Support Agency urged a teenager to sue her father to pay for her to go to one of Britain's most expensive private schools.

Nicole Lavelle, 16, sued her father initially to force him to pay for her to switch from a private school in Harrogate to the exclusive Cheltenham Ladies' College.

The case further estranged Callum Lavelle from his teenage daughter, but the Sunday Times has learnt that the court action was launched after an official from the Child Support Agency (CSA) suggested Nicole, rather than her mother, Belinda, should sue to avoid legal costs.

Politicians and lawyers yesterday condemned the agency, which has been blamed for a catalogue of mishaps, including a number of suicides, since it was established in 1993.

Mr Lavelle also criticised the agency. Speaking for the first time since the judgment, Lavelle, 46, said: "It makes me laugh to hear Tony Blair talking about the importance of family values when a government agency and our legal system enables and encourages a child to sue her father and cause damage to their relationship that might be impossible to repair."

Eric Scott, a leading family lawyer, said: "We seem to be politically in a culture that says we need to put a higher value on family life. It seems unfortunate then that the CSA, which is a complete shambles and is lucky to have survived so long, should encourage children to sue parents and our legal framework assists the process."

Brian Monteith, Conservative education spokesman in the Scottish parliament and an MSP, said the agency had breached its own guidelines. He was concerned that it had advocated litigation, which was always likely to prove destructive to family relationships, rather than arbitration.

A spokeswoman for the CSA said staff were forbidden by law to discuss individual cases, but confirmed that counsellors were not supposed to give specific advice on resolving a problem that required outside help.

"They can advise someone to contact a solicitor or their local Citizens' Advice Bureau, but it goes beyond our remit to advise a client to sue their ex-partner, or to advise that their child should do so," she said.

Lavelle was incensed when he learnt from a CSA counsellor that the agency had advised his ex-wife to persuade their daughter to sue him.

Cheltenham Ladies' College numbers English Patient star Kristin Scott Thomas and Daily Express editor Rosie Boycott among its old girls. Madonna recently visited to enquire about sending her daughter Lourdes there. Its fees are higher than those at Eton or Winchester, with sixth-form boarders charged £5,530 a term.

The Lavelles' marriage brokedown in 1996. Nicole opted to stay with her father, while her sister, Stephanie, now 11, wanted to live with her mother.

Lavelle's work, with a computer firm, often kept him away from his home in Dunblane, so he moved Nicole to the £12,000-a-year Harrogate Ladies' College to board. In 1999, Nicole asked to move to Cheltenham so she could visit her mother in Worcestershire at weekends. But Lavelle was unwilling to pay the extra fees.

His former wife confirmed that the CSA advised her that her daughter should issue a writ in Scotland. She said: "They told me to get a lawyer in Scotland. I said I couldn't afford that but they said that as Nicole was 16, she would get legal aid and could sue her father."

Before the case came to court, Nicole and her mother had a rethink about schools and she began her sixth form at King's School in Worcester. But Lavelle refused to pay the £6,600-a-year fees. However, Sheriff Wyllie Robertson's judgment has given the responsibility back to Lavelle.

The sheriff branded him a "cold, unfeeling individual" with a need to control those around him. He also noted he "did not speak of his daughter with any affection whatsoever".

Lavelle told The Sunday Times: "As a result of the pressure this case has put me under, I will be on medication for my blood pressure for the rest of my life. In that situation, how can the sheriff judge what sort of father I am?"

He added that his door would always be open to Nicole and Stephanie.

Nicole said: "I promised him when my parents split up that I would stay with him. I felt I had to keep my word because my sister was with my mum. I tried to keep my promise but in the end I couldn't do it any more. I doubt now whether I'll want to see him again."

Copyright 2001, Times Newspapers Ltd.