Access to justice (or not), shorter proceedings and more

Family Law|November 18th 2016

A week in family law

A recommendation of the House of Commons Justice Committee that the increase in the divorce petition fee to £550 should be rescinded has been rejected by the government.

In a response to the Committee’s recommendations concerning court and tribunal fees, the Ministry of Justice said:

“The new fee of £550 for a divorce came into effect on 21 March. Although it is too soon to draw any firm conclusions, there is no evidence so far that the fee increase has led to a fall in applications for a divorce. We are continuing to monitor the position carefully. Overall, we believe that the fee for a divorce is reasonable when considered against the objectives, generating an estimated £12 million per annum in additional fee income as a contribution to the savings required to make sure that the courts and tribunals are properly funded, and that access to justice is protected.”

Of course! Why didn’t I think of that? Making it unaffordable actually improves access to justice! Genius logic from the government.

Chair of the Justice Committee Bob Neill MP was also unimpressed. He said:

“It is disappointing that the Government Response is so negative in respect of the Justice Committee’s recommendations; perhaps more concerning is that it is almost offensively perfunctory, appearing to have been rushed out at short notice and giving little evidence of attention paid to the Committee’s detailed evidence and analysis. This is all the more surprising given that Government has had more than four months to produce this reply. I therefore intend to raise this matter and possible further steps with the Committee at our next meeting.”

I look forward to that.

A mother’s appeal against a decision to take her four year-old girl into care, on the grounds that her long-term emotional health and life chances were threatened by the mother’s inability to control her behaviour, has been dismissed by the Court of Appeal. The court heard that the girl showed extremely challenging behaviour, was at times aggressive and disrespectful towards her mother, did not trust her, failed to respond to her attempts to control her, and used inappropriate language. On one occasion the girl had run across a road, causing an oncoming car to brake suddenly. The mother accepted that she had failed to set boundaries and protect her daughter from emotional harm in the past, but her lawyers argued that her parenting had improved and that the girl was no longer at risk of suffering significant harm in her care. However, the Court of Appeal ruled that it was essential that the girl was taken into care in order to repair the emotional harm she had suffered.

The London Borough of Ealing has been warned to strengthen its protection of personal information after a social worker left court documents on the roof of her car and drove off. The incident occurred in February this year when a court bundle containing personal data on 27 people, including 14 children, fell off the car and was never recovered. This is obviously a serious incident, but let’s not get things out of proportion. After all, who can say they have never made a similar error? I certainly have: I recall one day getting back into my car after leaving court only to hear a thumping sound when I drove off, as my volume of the Family Court Practice, that I had left on the car roof, went crashing to the ground. OK, my error just resulted in a battered copy of a book, but it could just have easily have been a client’s file. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone, and all that…

Shorter care proceedings improve outcomes for children, a research study has found. The study, into a pilot conducted before the introduction of the 26 week time limit for care proceedings, found that more children ended up in stable placements, and those still needing one faced less of a wait. The evaluation, published by the University East Anglia’s Centre for Research on Children and Families (CRCF), investigated what happened to children in the two years after their final court hearing. The study followed up an earlier evaluation by CRCF of a pilot project to reduce the duration of care proceedings, in the Tri-borough area of London (Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster). This ran from April 2012 to March 2013 and reduced the average time from court application to final hearing, from 49 weeks in the pre-pilot year (2011-12) to 27 weeks. It also resulted in a speeding up of the pre-court proceedings stage. The study was funded by the Department for Education and Cafcass.

Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said:

“Unnecessary delays in care proceedings mean that children have to live with insecurity and uncertainty, and this can impact on their chance of stability and permanence. This important report shows how the Tri-borough has made it possible to combine faster family justice with safe and positive outcomes for children. Our task now is to find ways to reach this level of performance throughout the country, so it becomes the professional norm.”

Before I finish I just wanted to quickly mention a sad story that I’m sure you’ve seen in the news today, about the 14 year old girl dying from cancer, who wished to have her body cryogenically preserved, so that she might have a chance to be cured and woken up, even in hundreds of years’ time. Anyone who thinks that judges are out-of-touch aloof people who do not care should read the judgment of Mr Justice Peter Jackson.

And finally, this week there has been both good and bad news for our divorce lawyer brethren abroad. If you’re thing about setting up a divorce practice in South Korea, then that may not be the best idea, as South Koreans are apparently losing interest in marriage. On the other hand, Italy is clearly a better bet although you may need to get in quick, as a recent change in the law has led to a surge in the Italian divorce rate.

Have a good 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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