This week in family law
The 2nd edition of its Guidance on Financial Needs on Divorce has been published by the Family Justice Council. The guidance is addressed primarily to courts and legal advisers, and is intended to clarify the meaning of “financial needs” on divorce, to provide a clear statement of the objective that financial orders made to meet needs should (if possible) achieve, and to encourage consistency of approach by courts across England and Wales. In a foreword to the 2nd edition Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division, said: “since the publication of the first edition in June 2016, [the Guide] has established itself as an invaluable tool for the judiciary in relation to the making of orders to meet financial needs following divorce and the dissolution of civil partnerships. This Guide focuses on those cases where the available assets do not exceed the parties’ needs and provides a succinct summary of the law as explained and developed in the leading cases. It also includes a number of helpful case studies of common scenarios”. Clearly essential reading.
It has been announced that the Nuffield Foundation is to launch a ‘Family Justice Observatory’ next year. The Observatory is a research hub that “will support the best possible decisions for children by improving the use of data and research evidence in the family justice system in England and Wales.” The Foundation has appointed a team led by Professor Karen Broadhurst at Lancaster University to deliver the 12-month development phase of the Observatory, during which Professor Broadhurst’s team will build the infrastructure of the Observatory and advise the Foundation on the best operating model for the Observatory’s 4-5 year delivery phase, to begin in spring 2019. Tim Gardam, Chief Executive of the Nuffield Foundation said: “The Nuffield Foundation is one of the principal funders of family justice research and has been keen to take a lead on addressing the need to make better use of research findings and administrative data in family justice decision-making. We will work closely with Professor Broadhurst and the development team to ensure the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory delivers on its promise to improve outcomes for children in the family justice system.” Hopefully, that will be the case.
A district judge dealing with a father’s application to have contact with his 10 year-old daughter has criticised the fact that the mother, who made rape and sexual assault allegations against the father, did not have legal aid. As a result of this, he indicated, there may have been a miscarriage of justice. Both parties in the case were unrepresented, leaving the court to prepare makeshift bundles, each of the parties to prepare their own questions for cross-examination, and an alleged victim of domestic abuse with no moral and practical support in court. After some time in the witness box the mother stopped giving evidence, saying she could not continue. The judge expressed surprise that the mother, who is dependent on state benefits, had failed the means test and was not eligible for legal aid. He said that “the lack of legal representation gravely affected the fairness and efficiency of the process of questioning both parents”, and that there was a very strong likelihood that the outcome of the hearing “would have been different, and most probably a truer reflection of what really happened, had the parents been represented.” Extremely worrying stuff, although unfortunately the report of the case does not explain why the mother was financially ineligible for legal aid – usually, anyone on state benefits will be eligible.
And finally, a rather depressing story upon which to end, I’m afraid. It has emerged that the government’s programme to modernise the courts will entail the loss of about 6,500 courthouse and backroom jobs, along with the closure of yet more courts. The 6,500 job losses will be spread over the period from 2016, when the programme was launched, to 2022, by which time the total workforce of the courts service will number about 10,000. I realise that money has to be saved (as always), but as someone pointed out on Twitter, the greatest asset of the already embattled courts is surely its staff. Such a drastic staff reduction must surely result in a further deterioration of the service the courts provide.
On that not so happy note, we wish you a good weekend and Early May bank holiday.