John Bolch on what family lawyers were talking about this week

Family Law|Industry News|April 25th 2014

The Ministry of Justice has asked the Family Justice Council to take forward a recommendation by the Law Commission to clarify “financial needs” on divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership. The new guidance is to be published later in the year. Justice Minister Simon Hughes said: “We want separating couples to have the best information available to help when they approach the difficult and emotional separation process. This new guidance will lead to a better understanding and more realistic expectations of what they will expect to receive as financial settlements and enable swifter and better resolution of disputes.”

Sir Paul Coleridge has retired from the judiciary. Last December he received a warning from the Judicial Conduct and Investigations Office, after giving interviews and writing a newspaper article about his beliefs in support of traditional marriage. At his retirement ceremony he said that: “Something can and should be done to stem the tide of family breakdown. Family judges have a unique experience of this and therefore a unique contribution to make. We should not be afraid to speak out.”

The biggest family justice reforms ‘for a generation’ came into effect on Tuesday. On that day the new single family court became a reality and most of the family justice provisions from the Children and Families Act were implemented, including compulsory attendance at mediation information meetings (MIAMs) for anyone wishing to apply to the court for an order and the replacement of residence and contact orders with the new ‘child arrangements orders’. Family Justice Minister Simon Hughes said: “For too long children have suffered from excessive delays and confrontational court battles. Our reforms will keep families away from negative effects of battles or delays in court and make sure that when cases do go to court they happen in the least damaging way.”

It has been reported that government ministers intend to set up a network of law centres which will be manned by students and trainee lawyers who can guide divorcing couples before they appear in court. The trainee lawyers will be there to ‘hold the hands’ of divorcing couples, and ‘reduce confrontations across the floor of the court’. It seems that all pretence of equal access to justice is now going out of the window in favour of cost-cutting.

Meanwhile, data from the Ministry of Justice shows that more than half of all parties involved in child-related cases are now unrepresented, following the abolition of legal aid for most family law matters last year. The number of unrepresented parties, either parents or grandparents, in child-related proceedings has increased year-on-year by a third, from 25,656 between April and December 2012, to 34,249 between April and December 2013. In the most recent two months for which data is available, over half of all parties (52%) attending child-related proceedings were unrepresented.

Finally, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (‘Cafcass’) has received an overall judgement of ‘good’ from Ofsted. In its report Ofsted found the leadership and governance of the organisation to be ‘outstanding’. It also found that family court advisers consistently work well with families to ensure children are safe and that the court makes decisions that are in children’s best interests. Further, when parents need the court to help them decide where they should live or who they should have contact with then the children, young people and their families receive a good service. All of this must come as welcome news for Cafcass, which has been much-maligned in some quarters.

It’s been a momentous week. If you’ve survived it, then do have a good weekend.

Photo by  ex_libris_gul via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence

Author: John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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