A Bill of Rights, fixed fees and more

Family Law|August 26th 2016

A week in family law

The August sun may have discouraged a lot of activity in the field of family law this week, but there has still been quite enough to talk about:

“Aggressive” emails that a father sent to a social worker during the course of care proceedings contributed to a judge’s decision to place his son in care. The judge described the emails as “bordering on the offensive, certainly aggressive”, and said that they made it very clear to his mind that the father would not be able to work with the Local Authority to the child’s benefit. He found that the emails, together with the father’s failure to cooperate with a court-ordered psychological assessment and his decision not to attend the final hearing, left him with “no evidence” on which to conclude that the father had any understanding of the boy’s emotional needs, or the ability to meet them. In those circumstances the judge accepted the evidence which the social worker gave that there was no alternative but for a care order to be made, given that the only option before the Court, other than that, was the father’s application for the child to live with him. This case, like others, makes it clear that email technology can be as much a curse as a benefit. Certainly, litigants, especially those without representation, should think carefully before hitting the “send” button.

The Information Commissioner has fined Hampshire council £100,000, after confidential files containing “highly sensitive” details of vulnerable adults and children were found in a disused building. The fine was issued after the files, along with 45 bags of confidential waste, were found in a former council building in August 2014. The documents, which contained personal details of more than 100 people, were discovered by a company who had purchased the building from the local authority. Steve Eckersley, the head of enforcement at the Information Commissioner’s Office said: “Hampshire County Council failed to ensure that highly sensitive personal data about adults and children in vulnerable circumstances was disposed of. The council knew the building had housed a department that dealt with confidential information and should have had a proper procedure in place to check no personal data was left in the building. Organisations must implement effective contingency plans to protect personal data when decommissioning buildings.” Quite.

The new Justice Secretary Liz Truss has confirmed that the government will press ahead with plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. Appearing on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, she said that there was no substance to rumours that the plan was set to be axed following the EU Referendum. She told presenter Nick Robinson that it was “a manifesto commitment”, although she declined to comment on possible timing or the publication of the Bill. As I explained here, replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights is a needless exercise, which could mean that we end up with fewer, or more restricted, rights than we have now.

In its response to the interim report that the Competition and Markets Authority published into the legal services market last month, the Legal Services Consumer Panel has said that family lawyers should be forced to offer fixed fees for their work. The Panel says that “consumers need price transparency” and that fixed fees are “the optimum solution especially in areas like family law, where consumers are often at their most vulnerable”. At one point in the response the Panel looks at “comparable markets”, where work is being done on giving customers price information, giving the example of dentists. However, as I said here, dentistry is not comparable with family litigation. With all due respect, family litigation is generally far more complicated and unpredictable than dental work, and fixed fees are simply not appropriate.

And finally, the most important news of the week was surely that married couples who drink similar amounts of alcohol are happier on average than couples where one partner drinks more than the other. I’m not sure what is to be done with this vital piece of information, although personally I would have thought that most wives would be only too pleased to get rid of their husbands down the pub for a few hours, but there you go…

And (hopefully) back to that August sun: have a good summer bank holiday weekend.

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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