Children’s wellbeing at the crux of family court reforms

Children will be better protected from the impact of lengthy courtroom battles thanks to pioneering measures to help families resolve disputes as swiftly as easily possible. With the hope that if parents are offered early legal advice to settle disputes amicably away from the courts.

Families who are separating will benefit from early legal advice, as well as greater use of mediation, and the continued (and expanded) rollout of a pilot which better supports domestic abuse victims and children, following the government’s response to the Private Family Law Early Resolution Consultation published on 26th January 2024.

A legal advice pilot is going to be launched which aims to help families agree child arrangements quickly. As well as attempting to address any barriers to early resolution including such as a lack of understanding of the alternative options which are available, such as mediation.

The role of a mediator will be bolstered through improved domestic abuse screening and advanced DBS checks, meaning they have the right vetting and will hopefully be able to support children earlier in the process.

This, coupled with the mediation voucher scheme which has already helped nearly 25,000 separating families, will mean more couples can resolve their issues without ever reaching court, if there is no need to.

For those who do still find themselves going through the courts, a successful pilot in North Wales and Dorset, (which was aimed at reducing conflict), will be expanded to the family courts in Birmingham and south east Wales, ahead of a national roll out. The model adopted by this pilot improves information sharing between agencies like the police and local authorities so victims avoid retelling traumatic experiences.

It also allows judges to review more documents before a case gets to court which aims to prevent further conflict in the courtroom, and gives children extra opportunities to explain how they feel about decisions which affect their future.

Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk KC, said:

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach for separating families, which is why we’re ensuring people have access to early legal advice and mediation to resolve disputes as early as possible.

These reforms will help spare thousands of children the long-term harm of lengthy, combative courtroom conflict.”

More than 60,000 private law children and contested finance cases went through the family courts in 2022. Plus long-term conflict between separating parents can have a significant impact on a children’s wellbeing both at child age but also going into adulthood. The trauma has been linked to increased rates of anxiety, aggression, and depression, and can lead to anti-social behaviour, academic struggles, and substance misuse.

Mediators can help avoid some of these issues by working with both parties together or separately to find a solution that works for them, rather than simply have a solution imposed on them by a judge.

Figures as of December 2023, show that the government-funded mediation voucher scheme (which was backed by £23.6 million), has helped over 24,600 families to resolve their issues without resorting to court.

Greater use of mediation (no doubt aided by Family Mediation Week last week) also allows family courts to better prioritise and provide protection for the most serious cases with safeguarding concerns where mediation simply is not an option, such as domestic abuse and child safety.

Following a consultation on mandatory mediation, some concerns were raised, with concerns that the proposed safeguards to protect domestic abuse victims may not go far enough. To avoid forcing a continued relationships between a victim and their abuser the government will not change the law to mandate mediation for separating couples.

The Government have said that they are working with the Family Mediation Council to improve training for mediators on domestic abuse and help them develop a screening tool, such as a questionnaire to better identify victims at the earliest opportunity.

Justice Minister, Lord Bellamy, said:

“These reforms are about helping those who need it the most. By elevating the voice of the child and reducing strife in a court room, we will give our children the best chance of growing up to becoming well-adjusted adults.”

The response also commits to increase inclusive mediation by ensuring mediators can apply for advanced Disclosure and Barring Service checks, create a new online portal for parents sign-posting to relevant support services and improve the offline information available at Family Hubs.

The government has also pledged to work alongside Cafcass – an independent body which advises family courts on what is safe for children and in their best interests – to help more families undertake parenting programmes early in the process, rather than by court order.

Chief Executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass), Jacky Tiotto, said:

“One of Cafcass’ main strategic priorities is to improve the experiences of children in private law proceedings. There is so much more to be done to turn up the volume of their voices and to make them central to the business of the proceedings. We therefore welcome the heightened focus on children within the government’s proposals announced today. We are already working alongside our partners in the family justice system to create a Pathfinder in Birmingham and we support the government’s intention to encourage more families to find alternative resolutions and to prioritise what is in their children’s best interests without the need for lengthy family court proceedings.”

Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs said:

“The Family Court is critical in keeping child and adult victims safe from abuse. I am delighted that the Pathfinder Court pilots will be extended to two further sites, with a view to national roll-out. These courts take a child-centred approach, supporting victims and embedding an understanding of domestic abuse throughout the proceedings, which were key recommendations I made in my 2023 Family Court report.

I welcome the opportunity to continue working with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that early resolution measures – such as provision of early legal advice, and reforming the family justice system to be less adversarial and more child-centric – will further improve the Family Court response to domestic abuse and protect child and adult victims from further harm.”

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