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Contact ideas, refuges and shouting barristers

A week (well, nearly) in family law

Lord Justice McFarlane has put forward some interesting ideas regarding the issue of contact, both in relation to contact with adopted children by members of their natural family, and in relation to private law contact disputes between parents. In a speech to the NAGALRO annual conference he said that with regard to adoption contact “in a world where Facebook, Snapchat, email and Google are second nature to all youngsters, the ability of adopted families to prevent or even monitor any contact between their child and her natural family is very limited indeed.” He suggested that the existing model whereby there is usually limited or no contact might change, and be replaced by an approach that was more flexible and case-specific. As to private law contact disputes, he emphasised the need to recognise and address potentially intractable cases at a very early stage, by having a fact-finding hearing to look into allegations made by either parent. He also asked whether the judiciary should explain to parents at the outset of cases what ‘normal contact’ looks like, in order to make them re-think their expectations, and thus make it more likely that cases will be resolved by agreement. As I said in a post here on Tuesday, these are interesting ideas, which deserve further consideration.

Moving on, figures obtained by The Guardian newspaper indicate that council funding for women’s refuges across England, Scotland and Wales has been cut in real terms by nearly £7 million since 2010. The paper said that of the 178 authorities that responded to its request for information, 117 (65 per cent) had cut funding in real terms since 2010, amounting to an average fall for each of £38,000, or £6.8 million in total. This is all particularly worrying, as the fall in financial support comes just as the government is planning to remove refuges from the welfare system. Instead of using housing benefit to fund refuges, the government is proposing to give “ring-fenced” grant to councils for short-term supported housing. Katie Ghose, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, commented: “Our network of life-saving refuges have been forced to provide more for less, doing extraordinary work on uncertain and short-term shoestring budgets. However, the government’s planned changes to the way that refuges will be funded will be the breaking point. The government’s plans will remove refuges’ last secure form of funding – housing benefit – and devolve housing costs to local authorities to ‘fund services that meet the needs of their local areas’. But this is an inappropriate local response to what is a national problem. Over two-thirds of women escape to a refuge outside of their local area for fear that they will be hunted down by the perpetrator; while one in 10 of all domestic abuse services currently do not receive any local authority funding.” She called upon the government to give a “cast-iron guarantee” that its proposed changes to funding would be dropped.

And finally, in one of the more amusing stories of the week (at least to those not involved) three barristers have had their knuckles rapped by a judge (to a greater or lesser degree) for “regularly interrupting” each other during two family court hearings. The barristers were representing two separated parents and their child in proceedings relating to arrangements for the child. Hearing an appeal Mr Justice MacDonald said: “Both the transcript of the hearing before the District Judge, and the transcript of the hearing before His Honour Judge Scarratt, record each of the advocates, although counsel for the father a good deal less so, regularly interrupting each other. The net effect of that approach was that … neither judge received properly structured submissions, in the proper order on the points that were in issue between the parties, and no issue was ever fully run to ground. It is quite clear from the transcript why the father chose to describe the hearing as having descended into a “shouting match”.” He added: “In this case, the reception by the court of properly sequenced submissions was rendered extremely difficult by a concerning tendency on the part of the advocates simply to interrupt each other in an effort to advance their competing submissions. It should go without saying that this mode of advocacy does not assist the court and is to be deprecated.” Quite so.

Have a good Easter 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, with his content now supporting our divorce lawyers and child custody lawyers

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