Today’s Family Lawyer Conference 2023: Private family law update

Collaboration, mediation and parental alienation were among key topics of conversation as family lawyers came together at the Today’s Family Lawyer Private Law conference hosted in Manchester on 27th October. 

Opening proceedings a panel of practitioners discussed their experience of “One Lawyer, One Couple.” Alison Bull (Mills & Reeve), Henry Wood (Hunters LLP), Tom Nash (Mr Divorce Coach), Eleonore Berthelson (42 Bedford Row), and Adele Ballantyne (Eleda Consultancy) contributed to a wide ranging discussion on the practical implementation of the initiative. The focal point of this session was client repair and preparation for the evolving landscape of mediation emphasising the importance of actively listening to clients and cultivating strong relationships with them. Ballantyne  underscored the significance of “repair rather than conflict” – advocating for a more emotional approach early in the client engagement process.

The panel also discussed the importance and value of the screening process, both from the point of view of suitability of “one couple, one lawyer” and the increased risks of coercive behaviours.

The next session saw Associate Director of Strategy and Delivery at the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (NFJO) Jude Eyre, address the research NFJO has done on the topic of separating families and their support needs. Eyre explored the importance of access to social support and material resources, asserting that parents with such access were better equipped to navigate the practical and emotional challenges of separation. Conversely, those without these resources faced greater difficulties in supporting their children through the impact of separation.

The final morning session provided a useful update on the current debate around mandatory mediation. Led by Karen Dovaston, (Dovaston Law) and Alison Bull the presentation explored the practitioner’s responses to the recent consultation on mandatory mediation with the stand out comment from the session articulating the frustrations and challenges of many;

“We teach law school students the litigious side of the law, and then spend the next few years encouraging them to solve problems and encourage alternative dispute resolution options.”

Finishing the morning was an exploration of the language of law from Emma Nash (Raydens Solicitors and founder of The Family Law Language Project) Sophie Kay(Coram Chambers) and Tara Dunne (OurFamilyWizard) discussing the importance of reviewing the language of correspondence and the courtroom to foster a less adversarial atmosphere.

The afternoon began with Neil Denny’s “Get Artisan” presentation, encouraging family lawyers to realise the value of their work for others and be true experts in their trade. “The biggest threat to Artisan is AI (artificial intelligence)” suggested Neil, whose passion for the subject sees him speak regularly at legal conferences.

An update on current case law around financial remedies by Rachel Bale (3PB) explored the impact of pre and post-nup agreements, conduct, and cost implications; citing recent case law including HD v WB [2023] EWFC 2: DP v EP (Conduct: Economic Abuse: Needs) [2023] EWFC 6.

The Law Commission followed with details of their project on the review of the Marital Causes Act; including the impact on financial remedies on divorce. The government has asked them to consider whether reform on financial remedies law is needed with the Commissions scoping report set to identify:

  • issues with the law and whether there is a case for reform;
  • possible models upon which any future reform could be based, or draw inspiration from;
  • the necessary parameters for further legal and policy work relating to financial remedies law;
  • questions that should be considered during any future consultation phase; and
  • policy choices that would need to be made by Government prior to devising a new scheme for financial relief.

The Scoping Report publication date will be September 2024. The Law Commission have said the project “will provide the basis for any future detailed financial remedies reform project and identify the key questions that any such project would address.”

One session which left many of the attendees reviewing their own policies and procedures was Keeley Lengthorn’s impassioned please for organisations up and down the country to adopt a formal baby-loss policy following her own tragic experiences and the example of New Zealand. “George’s Law” has stalled in Parliament but with many firms now voluntarily adopting their own policies for statutory leave in the case of baby-loss, there is progress being made with further efforts to drive it up the legislative agenda underway.

Finishing the day was Ruth Hetherington (McAlister Family Law) providing an update on very recent decision impacting the interpretation of parental alienation, and alienating behaviours. With no legal definition of parental alienation there has been much discussion in recent weeks on the topic; Hetherington emphasised the need to “push the courts to grasp these issues from the outset” and said to “be alive to the distinction between a parent who is opposed to contract, and a child who is implacably opposed to contact.”

Recent cases which discredit the views of “unregulated psychologists” will impact future case law with Hetherington urging attendees to respond to the current consultation around Draft Guidance of Responding to allegations of alienating behaviour.

This event marks the beginning of a tradition and we look forward to your continued support in the years to come. Further details and updates will be shared in due course.

We extend our deepest gratitude to the generous sponsors who made this event possible:

Forensic Testing Service | George’s Law | HiveRisk | Mr Divorce Coach | OurFamilyWizard | Settify | Support through Court

Our next event, The British Family Law Awards, is just around the corner. Join us in Bristol in January for an evening of recognition and celebration. Stay tuned for more information, and be sure to visit #BFLAwards2024 for the latest updates.

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