The indebted Polish fathers


Penal landscapes of all countries are built upon socially constructed crimes and punishments. For me it is the penal anomalies that are of most interest. As for the Polish criminal justice system my recent puzzlement relates to the extent of child maintenance arrears which might somewhat be viewed as a peculiarity of the Polish penal landscape.

While non-payment of child alimony is known in the English justice system as a civil issue, in the Polish context the offence translates as przestępstwo niealimentacji and is considered as a crime. The provision of Article 209 of the Polish Penal Code makes alimony arrears a criminal offence for which one can be sentenced to a fine, community order or up to two years of imprisonment.

Although the problem of non-paying parents has also been discussed as a major issue in the UK (see Allbeson, 2015) the amount of arrears appears to be less than in Poland.  According to statistics published by the Department for Work and Pensions, the outstanding maintenance arrears in the UK as of March 2013 were estimated at £3 992 543 – a figure that falls into three categories: likely to be collected (£512 013), potentially collectable (£563 478), and uncollectable (£2 917 052)[1]. The scale of falling into child maintenance arrears in Poland is significantly more considerable. According to the KRD Economic Information Bureau[2] for every 1000 debtors in Poland 7 are the ones who fail to pay outstanding alimony and the total amount of overdue child maintenance as of 2015 was estimated at 8.2 billion PLN (which is approx. 1.5 billion pound sterling)[3].

Given the very punitive response to child maintenance arrears in the Polish justice system, substantial numbers of the child alimony debtors come into contact with the justice system. The tendency to punish, rather than negotiate, the persistent non-payment of alimony dates back to the time of socialism. This long (and punitive) tradition of dealing with child support arrears in the Polish criminal law is still in place. By way of illustration, in 2011 out of the 423 464 sentenced offenders, 16 138 (3.81%) were charged with child maintenance arrears. Furthermore, taking into account the likelihood of receiving a custodial sentence in Poland, it is then unsurprising to see that 76.2% of offenders who fail to clear the arrears get a suspended sentence, 6.5% receive an immediate prison sentence, only 16.5% are sentenced to community order,  and 0.8% are ordered to pay a fine (Gruszczyńska et al., 2014).

And my final point. The non-payment of child support is predominantly caused by fathers as approx. 90% of the alimony debtors are male parents. Fidelis (2012) has interestingly argued that it was a female who was expected to run the household and take the primary role as a parent under the communist regime. The role of father has been significantly limited  for years, which resulted in the exclusion of fathers from mainstream full time parenting, and potentially contributed to the number of fathers who became alimony debtors. This might be partially true as similar observations could be made in other countries as well. Whichever explanation helps to make sense of the problem it is essential to react against this culture of non-compliance, or in other words – the culture of parental financial negligence.

However, do we really need to use imprisonment for this?


Allbeson, J. (2015) Child maintenance arrears: why government boasts of success ring hollow. Available at:

Gruszczyńska, B.; Marczewski, M. & Ostaszewski, P. (2014) Spójność karania. Obraz statystyczny stosowania sankcji karnych w poszczególnych okręgach sądowych. Warszawa: Instytut Wymiaru Sprawiedliwości.

Fidelis (2012) Szukając traktorzystki. Kobiety i komunizm, Miesięcznik ZNAK, p. 33-39.


[1] Client Funds Account – Statutory child maintenance schemes 2013/14, Department for Work and Pensions,

[2] KRD Economic Information Bureau (Polish original: Krajowy Rejestr Dłużników), established in 2003 to provide an economic information exchange programme for all business partners: individuals, sole traders, secondary creditors, small and medium enterprises, and large corporations. Since 1st July 2015 all child maintenance debtors have to be registered with the KRD.


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