As is customary at this time of year, I thought I would do a short series of posts reviewing some of the most important developments in family law over the last twelve months. It’s certainly been a busy time…
The year began with one of its recurring themes: mediation. Using the January ‘divorce bulge’ as a convenient hook, the Ministry of Justice announced an ‘extra £10 million for mediation’. The stated reason was “to support separating couples at the time of year when the number of people considering separation and divorce is at its peak”, although it turned out that the extra £10 million was actually expected to be spent during the year, rather than in January particularly. I have already made clear my views on the Government’s cynical support for mediation, as if it were a panacea that could replace proper legal aid funding.
Moving on, January also brought us a new President of the Family Division, with Sir James Munby being appointed to replace Sir Nicholas Wall, who was forced to retire due to ill health. As we would soon discover, Sir James brought a new and energetic style to the post, particularly taking on the task of reforming the family justice system with considerable gusto. We would be hearing a lot more from him over the coming months…
On the subject of reforming the family justice system, also in January the Family Justice Board published its Action Plan to Improve the Performance of the Family Justice System. The Plan set out “the actions the Board and its partners will take to achieve the Government’s vision of a family justice system [i.e., following the Family Justice Review] that supports the delivery of the best possible outcomes for all children who come into contact with it.” (Unfortunately, it seems that every new Government initiative has to be couched in such ‘spin’ terms.) Obviously, there was some important stuff in the Plan, although to be perfectly honest, I have found it a little difficult to keep up with all of the different threads of reform, which seem to be happening in a number of different places simultaneously – something will be seen throughout this review.
For example, the beginning of February saw the publication of the Children and Families Bill. The Bill is currently going through the House of Lords, but is expected to come into force next year. It contains a number of important changes, including the way in which private law child children matters are dealt with, as was explained recently here by Jennifer Hollyer. Quite what difference those changes will actually make in practice I’m not so sure. For example, as Jennifer explained, the original idea of a ‘shared parenting presumption’, which was included to appease fathers’ rights groups, has (thankfully) been watered down to a point where it’s difficult to see how it will change the way in which the courts already view matters now.
It’s not often that the Supreme Court (or before it, the House of Lords) deals with a family case. Like London buses, two came along at once in February. In the matter of L and B (Children) and In the matter of J (Children) were both care cases, which should come as no surprise, considering the amount of court time that such cases take up. In fact, the continuing increase in the number of care cases would be another theme for the year.
On the subject of recurring themes, the second ‘Implementation Update’ for the Family Justice Modernisation Programme was published in February by the Judiciary. I won’t go into the details here, but we did learn things about the new ‘Single Family Court’ that is due to come into being next year (as I discussed here).
Finally (for now), February concluded with two items that surely belong in the ‘who would have guessed?’ category. Firstly, a survey informed us that divorcing couples often hide assets. Really? I never knew. Secondly, almost as profound, the Legal Ombudsman told us in a report that family disputes give rise to more complaints against lawyers than any other type of dispute. Well, you learn something every day!