A week in family law: Pro bono, court fees and more

Family|Industry News | 18 Sep 2015 0

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Family law news this week was dominated by some worrying stories…

According to the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby, dozens of people who had fertility treatment might not be the legal parents of their children as a result of “widespread incompetence” in the sector. His comments came after it emerged that consent forms, which give legal parental status, were not properly completed by clinics in the case of seven couples who had assisted reproduction by sperm donor. If couples are not married or in a civil partnership they need to sign written consents before treatment begins, to ensure they have legal parental rights. Sir James said the failure to properly complete such forms painted an “alarming and shocking” picture. The case itself involved five heterosexual couples and two same-sex couples, but it is understood that 85 other couples could have their parentage called into doubt because of inaccurate paperwork.

The number of applications for legal assistance received by the Bar Pro Bono Unit has almost doubled since the legal aid cuts three years ago. The increased demand for free legal representation or advice has led to serious strains on the resources of charities and the goodwill of barristers and solicitors, as lawyers warn that pro bono work is not there to plug any legal aid gap. Jess Campbell, the unit’s chief executive, said: “We are seeing a 30 per cent increase in applications year on year. The bar has always supported pro bono work and giving unbilled hours. It’s in the nature of the profession to do it. The difference now, however, is that barristers are being asked to do work that they would previously have been paid for.” And who said that you can’t get something for nothing? As for whether pro bono could ever fill the gap left by the abolition of legal aid, my answer can be found here.

A High Court judge has ordered the return of a 13-year-old girl who has been taken to Sudan and is feared to be at risk of female genital mutilation (‘FGM’). Kent social services took High Court action in an effort to protect the girl, who was taken to Sudan by her mother. Mr Justice Baker made the FGM protection order after being told that the mother had left the girl with relatives before returning home to England. The case is due to be re-examined in the near future.

The Law Society president Jonathan Smithers has warned that increases in court fees could make legal rights ‘meaningless’. The Ministry of Justice’s consultation on lifting the current cap on court fees has been met with widespread resistance from the legal profession. Smithers said: “There has been no assessment of the impact of increases, just six months ago, of more than 600 per cent. Raising the fees further may render ordinary people’s legal rights meaningless because they simply would not be able to afford to enforce them.” He also commented that it was wrong in principle for the courts to make a profit for government. The Law Society has also reiterated its concerns for higher fees for divorce proceedings. The estimated cost of such proceedings, according to the Ministry’s own figures, is £270. The government, however, proposes to increase the charge to £550. “It is disappointing that the government is seeking to gain from the misfortune of people who are going through the difficult circumstances of divorce,” added Smithers. I couldn’t have said it better.

And finally, a family court judge has criticised a decision by social workers to recommend adoption for a six-year-old boy, without having first explored other options. Judge Stephen Wildblood QC condemned Gloucestershire County Council for serious failings and delays in its management of the child protection case, saying he was “deeply critical” of social workers’ decision to recommend the drastic option of adoption for the boy without having first explored realistic alternatives, as they must by law. He also said a number of the council’s actions affecting the pregnant mother were “manifestly unfair”, and issued a reprimand for the large amounts of public money wasted as a result of mismanagement over 16 months of what are still unfinished care proceedings. A worrying end to a worrying week’s news.

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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