A week in family law: New courts, u-turns and more

Family Law|Industry News | 20 Feb 2015 0

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Here are the highlights of an eventful week…

A report published by the Online Dispute Resolution Advisory Group of the Civil Justice Council recommends the establishment of an Internet-based court service. The service would be known as ‘HM Online Court‘ (‘HMOC’). The Group recommend that HMOC should be a three-tier service, comprising ‘Online Evaluation’, which is essentially an information service, ‘Online Facilitation’ (basically mediation) and ‘Online Judges’, who will decide the cases online, largely on the basis of papers submitted to them electronically. Whilst the Group’s terms of reference were restricted to civil claims under the value of £25,000, they did state that they believe that HMOC should also be extended to ‘suitable family disputes’, something that I feel is very likely to happen.

In another u-turn on public funding, Justice Minister Simon Hughes has announced that from September all family court judges in England will be able to order DNA tests to determine a child’s parentage. This follows two pilot schemes in Taunton and Bristol which were set up following anecdotal evidence that courtroom arguments led to delays in divorce cases, particularly where parentage was in question. Findings from the pilots suggest the tests mean judges could be more confident when making decisions about children and, most importantly, parents would be more likely to follow the court’s orders. The cost of the tests will be provided from public funding. Taking away with one hand and giving back with the other…

Senior managers at a local authority have been severely criticised by the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby over the way they handled a case involving a child who had been placed in foster care at birth because of the father’s links to the English Defence League. Sir James said that the approach taken by Darlington Borough Council had been almost a textbook example of how not to pursue a care case. The child’s father had wanted to look after him, but social services staff said he should be adopted. Sir James dismissed the adoption application and ordered that the boy be returned to his father. As Sir James said, the courts are not in the business of social engineering.

More Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDACs) are to be opened. These help parents deal with drug or alcohol addiction so they can keep their children. There has been an FDAC in London for seven years, and others have opened more recently in Gloucestershire and Milton Keynes. New FDACs will now open in areas including East Sussex, Kent and Medway, Plymouth, Torbay and Exeter, and West Yorkshire. The courts deal with families that come into care proceedings where one or both of the parents has a drink or drug problem. FDACs have their own team of experts and doctors, and parents come up before the court every fortnight, seeing the same judge every time. Last year an evaluation of the London FDAC found that 35 per cent of mothers managed to beat their addictions, so their children could be returned safely to them, compared with 19 per cent of mothers who go through ordinary family courts. Hopefully, the resources will be found to extend the courts to all areas of the country.

In a busy week, Justice Minister Simon Hughes has announced that children aged 10 and over will be able to express their views about what should happen to them in court proceedings following divorce or relationship breakdowns. I’m not sure that this is actually news (wasn’t the same thing announced last July?), and I’m also not sure what exactly this adds to the law as it already stands, in which the courts take into account the ascertainable wishes of the child.

Lastly, research by Citizens Advice has indicated that victims of domestic abuse are increasingly having to face being cross-examined by their attackers, because legal aid cuts make it difficult for them to qualify for courtroom representation. Domestic violence was, of course, supposed to be ‘protected’ from the cuts, but obviously this sort of ordeal is likely to discourage domestic violence victims from seeking protection. Once again we find the legal aid cuts damaging access to justice.

Have a good weekend.

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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