A few thoughts on the OnlyMums & Dads National Family Law Survey 2019

Children|Divorce|October 8th 2019

Last month OnlyMums and OnlyDads published the results of a survey they carried out looking at concerns that their community (professionals as well as parents) have regarding the family justice system, in particular how the system deals with private law children cases. The survey was supported by the Family Law Company and Stowe Family Law. (For those who don’t know OnlyMums/OnlyDads “is a not-for-profit social enterprise offering support to families going through separation and divorce.”)

I thought I would have a quick look at the results of the survey, and make a few comments.

Matters of concern

The survey was prompted by the review of the Child Arrangements Programme and its operation proposed Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Law Division. It comprises 23 questions regarding family justice, which the organisations say they “consistently hear raised as matters of concern.”

Those taking the survey were asked whether they felt that the matters raised in the questions should be considered as “Low Priority”, “Desirable”, “High Priority”, or “Most Important”. I’m not entirely sure I agree with these categorisations, as they all assume a positive response. What if someone disagreed entirely with a suggested reform? Their only option would be to skip that question.

The survey had 582 respondents, about two-thirds of which were ‘parents having been through separation/divorce’, and the other third being ‘professionals working with separation/divorce’. Not, therefore, a huge data sample, but probably just enough to get some information of value.

OK, to the questions, and the responses. To keep this post relatively short, I will not cover all 23 questions here, rather just ‘cherry-picking’ a few of those that I think are of most interest.

The survey asked whether mediation should be made compulsory (the question does not break this down into application type, e.g. children application, financial remedies application, etc.). The responses were not particularly supportive of the suggestion, with 35% thinking it was ‘low priority’, and only 17% thinking it ‘most important’. Personally, I have always felt that compulsory mediation was almost a contradiction in terms: successful mediation, by definition, requires the agreement of the parties, and that includes the agreement to mediate in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, a question asking whether the role of Cafcass should be reviewed got a lot of support, with nearly 40% of respondents thinking this was ‘most important’. Cafcass has, of course, been under fire for some time, with many parents unhappy with the way it conducts cases, and the recommendations it makes. This antipathy towards the organisation has been driven by a concerted campaign against it.

Predictable

Next I come to the most predictable two responses, to questions regarding the perceived bias of the family courts, firstly against fathers and secondly against mothers. As one would fully expect, the former proposition was largely supported, and the latter largely opposed. C’est la vie.

As predictable was the response to a question asking whether there should be tougher consequences for those who break court orders, with nearly half of respondents saying that this was ‘most important’. Quite what they think the consequences should be, I’m not sure.

Similarly, 55% of respondents felt that it was ‘most important’ that there should be tougher consequences for false accusations made in court. What do they want? Those found guilty to be sent to prison? We would need to build a few more prisons. But seriously, it is vital that parties to family proceedings, especially proceedings relating to children, be free to say what they want to say in court. Tougher consequences could be a slippery slope towards making it much more difficult to ascertain the truth.

Perhaps the least surprising response was to a question asking whether respondents thought that the time it takes for a court case to complete should be quicker. Well, yes.

A question asking whether there should be more legal rights for co-habiting couples had a disappointingly lukewarm response, with only 22% of respondents thinking this ‘most important’. This may suggest a divide between family lawyers, who are generally very supportive of the reform, and the general public, who perhaps are not.

“Lawyers and judges should receive additional training on domestic abuse and the impact it has on children and young people” was a question that was considered ‘most important’ by almost 50% of respondents. I know judges and most lawyers already receive considerable training on this subject – I’m not sure what would be achieved by additional training.

Finally, another obvious response, to the question “There should be separate waiting rooms in family courts (especially in domestic abuse cases)”. Absolutely, yes, but with the chronic underfunding of our crumbling court estate, it ain’t going to happen any time soon.

As I indicated, all fairly predictable, but nonetheless of some interest.

You can download the survey here.

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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