Maintenance tweaks turn heat up

OUR children and our youth grow up facing many challenges. Many grow up in communities where poverty, inequality, violence, drug abuse, neglect and a lack of family structure are a reality.

For many the home is not a safe and secure place.

The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development has over the past 20 years been committed to ensuring the protection of children in our society. One of the areas that have a profound effect on the lives of children is that of maintenance.

The law says that parents are jointly responsible to maintain their children, yet today the responsibility of financially maintaining children often rests on the shoulders of single mothers who, in many instances, do not receive the financial support from the biological father.

These single mothers then struggle to bring nonpaying fathers to book.

The recently assented to Maintenance Amendment Act amends the Maintenance Act in order to improve the maintenance system, pending the finalisation of a review of the main act by the South African Law Reform Commission.

IT REGULATES, among others, the securing of witnesses for purposes of a maintenance enquiry and maintenance enquiries in order to make provision for the granting of interim maintenance orders.

Importantly, it allows for the reporting of a maintenance defaulter to a credit-granting or credit-rating business as well as for the attachment of emoluments.

However, the new act should not be viewed in isolation. It is part of a wider range of measures introduced by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to bring about real change in service delivery to maintenance beneficiaries.

These measures have been put in place specifically to ensure that women have better access to justice and access to our courts.

Access to justice is a constitutional imperative. With regard to the placement of courts, the department has, over the past two decades, gone to great lengths to bring courts to traditionally black and rural areas.

In respect of maintenance, the department has piloted the maintenance turnaround strategy, which includes maintenance mediation services in all courts, to speed up the finalisation of cases.

Many applications for maintenance are now finalised through mediation services that often result in the granting of consent orders on the same day of application, if both parties are in court.

It is faster, as it saves parties from going through the formal maintenance enquiry that often takes months to be finalised. Through this innovation, the department has significantly cut down the turnaround time in pre-order maintenance services.

A further improvement is the introduction of the electronic fund transfer system that allows beneficiaries to receive monies within four days after receipt of such payments by the department.

Through the electronic fund transfer system, the department now transfers monies directly into the beneficiaries’ bank accounts. This saves beneficiaries time and money as they no longer have to travel to court to collect these monies. It is also safer.

At present, 98% of the beneficiaries are on the electronic fund transfer system. Those who are not on the system yet are mostly non-nationals or persons who do not have identity documents required by banking institutions to open a bank account. The department is continually engaging with the Department of Home Affairs and banking institutions to assist these clients.

In terms of the direct payment system, the court orders — with the consent of the beneficiary — the respondent to deposit maintenance monies directly into the beneficiary’s bank account.

We have also introduced the maintenance integrated case management system, which caters for the automation and tracking of cases, from the registration of the maintenance application to the issuing of the maintenance order.

This leads to faster delivery of maintenance services as most of the paper work that courts were doing manually is now done electronically.

The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development has been progressively increasing the number of maintenance offices and maintenance investigators to improve service delivery every financial year.

In the past four financial years, the department has employed a total of 247 additional personnel.

A significant challenge we face is that many parents misrepresent their true financial position, thus compromising the fairness of maintenance awards and the ability of the system to recover arrears.

FOR this reason, when we talk about maintenance, we should not focus only on the provision of financial care, but also on the involvement of parents as well as responsible parenting.

Our regional offices therefore conduct outreach events in partnership with civil society on responsible parenthood.

The events promote responsible fathering among men to ensure that fathers understand and accept their responsibility to pay maintenance.

Other innovative steps include the use of digital cameras. It has been used successfully in maintenance courts in KwaZulu-Natal as part of the investigation process.

It is especially difficult to prove that someone is employed within the informal sector of the economy and the cameras assist the investigators in obtaining photographic evidence that the respondent is indeed employed.

In terms of the Maintenance Act and the regulations, maintenance officers are empowered to take photographs of respondents appearing in the maintenance court. This will ensure that maintenance officers are able to enforce these provisions of the act.

These are but some of the measures we have put in place.

No single piece of legislation can, realistically, be expected to solve all problems overnight, but we must continuously implement measures that can make the system work better.

The new act is therefore an important step in this regard.

• Jeffery is Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development



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