May began with the publication of the annual report of the Office of the Head of International Family Justice for England and Wales, for the year 2012. This may not seem particularly noteworthy, but it did demonstrate the increasingly international nature of family law disputes. The report set out the fact that the number of such multi-country disputes had risen by 40 per over the previous year. As the preface to the report stated: “The need for all involved in family law to integrate a trans-national mindset into their approach to resolving cases is self-evident, especially given globalisation, increasing movement of persons across borders, and the ever rising number of family units which are truly international.”
As part of the Government’s drive to reduce the number of children awaiting adoption, on the 3rd of May the Department for Education announced a new ‘Passport to support’ for adopters. The ‘passport’, which is actually the First4Adoption website, sets out the support services adopters can expect from local authorities. The rationale behind it was that research had suggested that many prospective adopters were put off by misconceptions about the process, including lack of support. Hopefully, the ‘passport’, together with other government initiatives, will have the desired effect, not just in reducing the backlog of children waiting to be adopted, but also in reducing the time that they have to wait for a home.
Family justice is rather confusingly spread over several government departments, all of which regularly shower us with press releases informing us of their latest initiative to transform the system for the better. On the 16th of May it was the turn of the Ministry of Justice, which informed us that in the latest stage of reforms to improve and speed up the family justice system, it proposed introducing new standards so that evidence provided in a family court “can only be given by qualified, experienced and recognised professionals”. We were told that: “For far too long there has been an increasing trend in England and Wales for expert witnesses to provide unnecessary and costly evidence – in the form of further written statements, clarifications and additional court appearances. This can cause major delays in child care cases and in the worst examples this has led to cases being forced to start again. Under the new plans experts who are well-qualified and experienced will continue to provide their valuable service in advising the family courts – but the so-called experts who provide evidence which is simply not up to scratch will be driven out.” It all sounded so marvellous, although I’m not sure that the problem can have been that bad – how many courts had previously put up with evidence from charlatans?
A few days later, on the 20th May, the third government department dealing with family justice matters took centre stage when the Department for Work & Pensions proudly announced that: “The proportion of separated parents who are paying for their children through the Child Support Agency has reached an historic high, with more than 4 in 5 parents meeting their financial responsibility”, according to their new official statistics. What was not mentioned in the press release was that cases where maintenance was paid between parents direct rather than through the agency were counted as paid in full, despite the fact that the Department for Work & Pensions admitted that it had no way of measuring whether this was true or not. In fact, the Department admitted that in only 28 per cent of these ‘direct’ cases was the maintenance likely to be paid in full. Another case of figures being massaged to make the Government look better?
It was the turn of the Department for Work & Pensions again on the 4th of June when it announced that an additional £3.4 million was available “for innovative projects as part of £20m worth of investment to support parents to collaborate to give their children the best start in life.” This would not be the last such announcement during the year, as part of the Government’s futile policy to patch up the mess left after the abolition of legal aid.
The last government missive that I want to mention in this part of this Review came from the Ministry of Justice on the very next day, when it announced what we already knew, i.e. that anyone wishing to make an application to court would first “have to attend an initial information and assessment session to see whether it would be better for them to use mediation than to get embroiled in a legal battle over dividing property and agreeing child custody arrangements.” Of course, Lord McNally took the opportunity to sing the praises of mediation once again…
For the last item in this part of this Review I will thankfully move away from the murky waters of Westminster and actually look at some law. On the 12th of June the Supreme Court handed down its judgment in the case of Prest v Petrodel. In a ruling that came as a surprise to many, the Supreme Court unanimously allowed the appeal by Mrs Prest, so that assets held by companies and trusts within her former husband’s control could be transferred to her as part of a £17.5m divorce settlement. The decision was, of course, welcomed by family lawyers, who have often had to deal with parties who maintain that assets that they really own are out of the reach of the court because they are held in the name of a company. A small victory for common sense?