A week in family law: Divorce reform, troubled families and a judicial reprimand

Family Law|Industry News | 22 Mar 2019 2

Another fairly quiet week in family law. Perhaps there is something else going on. Whatever, I have found these three stories.

Firstly, as I reported here yesterday, new research published by the Nuffield Foundation argues that the proposal by the Ministry of Justice (‘MoJ’) for no-fault divorce is fully consistent with international trends. Indeed, the report finds there is an international trend away from requiring any ground at all. Sounds good to me. The report examines what lessons can be drawn from the experience of divorce law reform in eight comparable jurisdictions: Austrailia, California, Colorado, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Spain and Sweden, and finds that there is an international trend towards recognition that a divorce must be granted where one of both parties insists that the marriage is over. The aim of the report is to explore how divorce procedures that are similar to that being proposed here work in practice in other jurisdictions, to inform the MoJ’s policy process as it unfolds. The MoJ says that it will announce how it intends to reform the legal requirements for divorce ‘very soon’, so whether the report will actually make any difference at this late stage is a moot point. Nevertheless, as I said, the report makes fascinating reading.

And next a little bit of good news, or so it would seem. It has been reported that the Government’s Troubled Families Programme has reduced the number of children in care. Troubled Families is a programme of targeted intervention for families with multiple problems, including crime, anti-social behaviour, truancy, unemployment, mental health problems and domestic abuse. Local authorities identify ‘troubled families’ in their area and usually assign a key worker to act as a single point of contact. Central Government pays local authorities by results for each family that meet set criteria or move into continuous employment. £448 million was allocated to the first phase of the programme, which ran from 2012 to 2015. Local authorities worked with around 120,000 families, and ‘turned around’ 99%. However the independent evaluation of the programme found no evidence that the programme had made any significant impact across its key objectives. The second phase of the programme was launched in 2015, with £920 million allocated to help an additional 400,000 families. The second phase will run until 2020. New analysis of the 2015-2020 programme in a report from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government suggests that the programme is cutting numbers of children in care by up to a third. The analysis compares families involved in the scheme to a control group which was not given the specialist help. The report states that: “The most striking finding is that the programme appears to have reduced the proportion of looked-after children”, adding: “2.5 per cent of the comparison group were looked after compared with 1.7 per cent of the programme group, a 32 per cent difference for this cohort at 19 to 24 months after joining the programme. The impact on those on the programme is likely to have huge benefits to children’s lives, contributes to managing children’s social care pressures and provides significant savings.” Whether all of this is as good as it sounds, I’m not sure.

And lastly, I have often wondered what makes anyone want to be a family court judge, in these days when the majority of litigants coming before them are unrepresented. No disrespect to litigants in person, but they must make the job of the judge more difficult, and at times more frustrating, particularly when the judicial workload is so high. It therefore comes as no surprise to see that a family court judge has been reprimanded by the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office (‘JCIO’) for speaking to an unrepresented party in a family case “in a sarcastic and condescending manner”, and banging her hand on her desk in frustration during a hearing. The judge expressed regret, but the JCIO decided that her behaviour “failed to demonstrate the standards expected of a judicial office holder”, and issued her with formal advice. Obviously there is no excuse for this behaviour, but perhaps we should spare a thought once in a while for the pressure that our judges are now having to work under.

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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    1. spinner says:

      “in a sarcastic and condescending manner” – Most of the judges I presented to were extremely condescending and rude, I put this down to them being on the spectrum along with a lot of the solicitors and barristers I dealt with.

    2. Matt says:

      Why would anyone want to be a divorce court judge?

      It is quite obvious. to anyone with a moderate degree of consciousness.

      For one thing, Judges are protected from any form of quality control. In effect they ca do what they like in their courts without any fear of being criticised, or of being held to account for their actions.

      And then there is the attraction of being both a hare and a hound – on the one hand making judgements that favour a particular party irrespective of the merits of the case. And then having the ability to accept lucrative paid work from a particular party some time – maybe a year or so later. Of courses doesn’t happen because Judges are bound by “ethical
      standards”. Which in connection with divorce court judges is a meaningless phrase, since a number of judges have been caught out acting in breach of ethical standards but nothing is ever done about it. There is no viable mechanism for investigation and very little fear for the judges of being held to account. In fact there are websites that publicise examples of judges acting in breach of ethical standards, but the judges concerned are protected by the judicial system and never have to answer for their behaviour. It is quite right change the judicial system in respect of divorce, but I personally think that whatever changes are made, the door will still be open for theft and fraud occasioned by judges. I don’t say that all judges are tainted, but as one writer, himself a lawyer, said in his book published a couple foyers ago: “The UK divorce courts have a particular culture”. By that he was alluding to the fact that the UK divorce courts are simply not fit for purpose.

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