Week in family law: Support for abuse survivors, questions over divorce centres and calls for an inquiry

Family Law | 17 May 2019 0

“Thousands of survivors fleeing abusive and violent relationships will receive greater protection thanks to a new package of support.”

So says a press release published on Monday by the Prime Minister’s Office, amongst others. It continues:

“For the first time ever, councils across the country will be legally required to provide vital life-saving support in secure accommodation for survivors of domestic abuse and their children – ensuring need in their local area is met.”

We are also told that:

“Local authorities will also be required to work together with neighbouring councils to ensure domestic abuse services reflects the needs of local people – including targeted, specialist support for BAME, LGBT and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller survivors.”

The Prime Minister herself commented:

“I’ve always vowed to leave no stone unturned in tackling domestic abuse – this abhorrent crime has no place in our country. And today we are ending the postcode lottery by placing on local authorities a legal duty to deliver support, including secure housing, to survivors of domestic abuse and their children. Whoever you are, wherever you live and whatever the abuse you face, you will have access to the services you need to be safe.”

It all sounds good, but obviously there is no point giving a duty to local authorities if those authorities do not have the funds to comply with the duty. I am aware that some new funding has been made available, but whether it is enough, I don’t know. And obviously extra funding will be required not just now, but into the future.

Moving on, questions are being raised over the future of the eleven regional divorce centres, which were established in 2015 to handle all divorce cases in England and Wales. As I mentioned here, in his latest View from the President’s Chambers the President of the Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane said that the centres

“are being phased out during the current 12-month period and replaced by an online system based in the new national Civil and Family Service Centre at Stoke on Trent.”

However, a government spokesperson has said that no final decision has been made on the divorce centres. The centres, whose performance has recently been criticised both by Sir Andrew and the previous President Sir James Munby, may have their problems, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea to transfer to an entirely online system, if that is what Sir Andrew is suggesting. We must remember that there are still many people, particularly of the older generation, who are not online, and in any event I’m not sure I would like a world in which we are all required to be.

The latest figures for care applications and private law demand, for April 2019, have been published by Cafcass. In that month the service received 1,084 new care applications. This is 2.3 per cent (25 applications) lower than April 2018. As to private law demand, Cafcass received 3,719 new cases during April 2019. This is 7.5 per cent (258 cases) higher than April 2018. We are now having a clear picture of a long-term downward trend in care cases, and a long-term upward trend in private law cases.

And finally, the family justice system has come under scrutiny this week from the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire current affairs programme. On Wednesday we had a headline on BBC News which originally read “Children killed by parents after court-ordered access”, but was subsequently changed to “Call for inquiry into abusive parents’ access to children”, and yesterday we had a headline which read “Voices of children overlooked in family courts, says ex-head”.

Each headline was accompanied by much BBC television (and doubtless radio) coverage, not just on the programme but also on the news and elsewhere. The call for an inquiry came from a group of over 120 MPs, who wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice (and Lord Chancellor) David Gauke asking for the inquiry to look “into the treatment of victims of domestic abuse and violence in the family courts to establish the extent of the problem [i.e. of courts granting contact to parents who are known to be abusive] and if more fundamental reform is required to address this issue.” The call was rejected by the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesday, but I suspect that we have not heard the last of it.

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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