A week in family law: A serious case, more divorce centre delays and Brexit worries

Family Law|February 22nd 2019

And another strangely quiet one for family law news or new cases. Still, one must be grateful for small mercies.

There were, however, some serious stories. For example, a Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman investigation has found that a toddler was left with life-long injuries, after East Riding of Yorkshire Council missed opportunities to protect him from his mother’s violent partner. The case was brought to the Ombudsman by the boy’s father and grandmother, after a council investigation, which concluded the council had acted appropriately, took 76 weeks too long to complete. The Ombudsman’s investigation found the council missed opportunities to protect the toddler from harm, and when concerns were raised it did not have a plan to check on the children’s welfare or whereabouts. Remarkably, the council also disregarded a Court Order in respect of the mother and the toddler’s older sibling’s contact arrangements. Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman Michael King commented: “This sad case highlights the need for councils to follow the basic principles of child protection when dealing with welfare concerns. While the council did not cause the boy’s injuries, his family have been left not knowing whether they could have been prevented had social workers acted appropriately. Throughout the process the council has denied any responsibility for checking on the children’s whereabouts or welfare, and instead sought to blame others … I am pleased the council has now accepted the findings of my report and hope that by referring the case to a Serious Case Review Panel lessons can be learned to prevent an event like this happening again.”

Another story with serious consequences, although one that was entirely predictable: figures obtained by the Law Society Gazette from HM Courts and Tribunals Service (‘HMCTS’) have revealed that delays at the country’s biggest regional divorce centre at Bury St Edmunds reached unprecedented levels in 2018 (this is not the first time that delays have been reported at the centre – see this post that I wrote here last June). The figures, obtained in response to a freedom of information request, showed that it took 373 days on average from the issue of a divorce petition to decree absolute in 2018, a 9% increase from 2017. They also showed that the eight-day wait for issuing a petition has more than doubled in a year, while the average time from issuing of a petition to decree nisi has increased by 17%, to an average of 195 days. HMCTS told the Gazette that since the figures were recorded staff numbers at the centre had been increased, as a result of which performance has improved. HMCTS also pointed out that the new ‘online divorce service is speeding up the application process significantly’, although surely the delays caused by the centre only begin when a valid petition is received?

And finally, another worrying story: the UK’s four children’s commissioners (for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) have warned that children’s safety could be put at risk if the UK leaves the EU without proper plans for child protection. In a letter to the Rt. Hon Stephen Barclay MP, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the commissioners sought assurances on some of the immediate issues facing children arising from Brexit, including child abuse, exploitation, abduction and how family law matters are dealt with if a child has one parent from the EU. You can read the full letter here. According to a report on the BBC, a UK government spokesperson has said: “Protecting citizens, including children, is the first responsibility of government. The UK has proposed a comprehensive agreement on internal security that would ensure ongoing co-operation in this area, so that both the UK and the EU can continue to tackle fast-evolving threats. This includes taking any action required to keep our children safe from harm. This commitment remains, whether we leave with a deal or without one.” I’m not entirely certain that that answers the question.

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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