Family law is notoriously messy. Couples who were once head over heels in love with each other can become vicious and stubborn when they separate. Disputes can drag on, causing untold misery to everyone. This is particularly sad in cases which involve children.
While the top priority in English family law is the welfare of the child, they can go through hell as their parents continue to argue. Many have said that improvements must be made to the system to make things better for them. Now someone has attempted to do just that.
This new project is ‘The Family Solutions Court’. It opened in July on the fourth floor of First Avenue House – the Family Court Building on High Holborn in Central London.
His Honour Judge John Altman, Senior Designated Family Judge for London, is the principal architect of the project. Last week, he gave me a tour of the facility and I was very impressed. It is deceptively simple in style, but it contains all the features that could reasonably be needed to sort out children cases.
These features include several rooms especially designed for children to relax and play. In fact, those brightly painted rooms, decorated by school children, contain a breath-taking array of toys that in different circumstances would make it an ideal play area.
In the surroundings of a court building, they are designed to enable contact between warring parents to take place and to break the ice as happily as possible. Even the adjoining small court room is designed to be less austere and overpowering to the people caught up in the court process than a traditional court. That said, it is still quite obviously a court room.
The Family Solutions Court puts a great deal of emphasis on providing ways to resolve disputes in private family law that goes beyond the set piece trial – and it doesn’t just pay lip service to the principal. Judge Altman told me that he believes a court building should ideally find alternative solutions rather than put the parties through a formal court process.
Accordingly there are a number of helpful services on the floor. There is a pro bono scheme, and a contact centre. There is also information about mediation, and specialised courses for parents going through a separation or divorce are run there. Litigant in person charity the Personal Support Unit and the Citizens Advice Bureaux both have a presence on the fourth floor too. All of these resources can lend much-needed help and support to families who are going through what is undoubtedly one of the toughest periods of their lives.
Resentment and anger between former partners will never be fully eliminated when children are involved. Warring parents love their children so much that they are willing to fight for them. However, this is never a good approach as the stress which accompanies such disputes is often picked up by the children involved. So while it may not be possible for all cases to be calm and drama-free, anything which helps reduce the belligerence should be encouraged.
As a legacy, what Judge Altman – shortly to retire from the Bench – has done in Central London is fine indeed. As he approaches his retirement he can surely look back with pride on a long and distinguished career, culminating with such a practical and sensible project. It is impossible not to be impressed by the Family Solutions Court and I hope that it succeeds in its goal of making the resolution of such emotionally-charged disputes as peaceful and rational as possible. If this project can further be extended to family courts nationwide family practitioners everywhere will have cause to thank him for such a pragmatic and resourceful opportunity to resolve disputes in court despite the lack of legal aid.
Photo of His Honour Judge John Altman at the Family Solutions Court