Let’s embrace a child-focused approach to separation
The Divorce Act will overhaul divorce law and is due in Spring 2022. I believe this is a real opportunity to reset the agenda for separating families, keep them out of court where safe to do so and focus on children.
In the meantime, “parenting through separation” is the theme of this year’s Good Divorce Week from the family law organisation, Resolution. Co-parenting during lockdowns when schools, support services and courts were closed was an emotional and logistical nightmare for many families. One in three separated parents said the pandemic restrictions made it more difficult to keep co-parenting arrangements in place. A similar proportion said they had suffered more stress.
Polling carried out by Resolution, shows that families sadly have little faith in the current system. Of the parents surveyed, 67 per cent agreed that there was a lack of help and advice about how to put their children first when they separated. Inevitably, most parents looking for advice turned to family and friends. Informal guidance is a vital source of support but the people who love you most are rarely equipped with the knowledge and experience an impartial legal expert can bring.
That said, only a third of separating parents turned to a solicitor or legal professional. The overwhelming majority of this group reported that legal advice was an effective strategy to help them deal with their separation but with so few obtaining professional advice, things need to change elsewhere in the system.
One in three separated parents said the pandemic restrictions made it more difficult to keep co-parenting arrangements in place
Caught in the middle of parents trying to move forward, children are often affected by arguing even when there are herculean efforts made to protect them. A quarter of separated parents polled said they had noticed a loss of confidence in their children. One in 10 reported that their child displayed violent outbursts since the family had split. Around one in four said their child had become depressed and 14 per cent saw an increase in anti-social behaviour.
The government is keen to keep families out of court wherever possible and I have been encouraged by recent meetings with Dominic Raab, Ministers and civil servants. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Justice announced a £1m scheme offering hundreds of families a voucher to pay for mediation. That proved so successful that another £800,000 was committed to the scheme in the summer.
More than three-quarters of family cases eligible for the vouchers have used them to achieve resolutions without going to court. Agreements about children will invariably work better and last longer than court-imposed orders.
The Lord Chancellor has indicated that he wants to see increased use of mediation and he is looking at penalties for parents who are not using court time appropriately, as requested by some members of the judiciary. I have personally thought for some time that the enforcement of existing court orders needs to be quicker and more effective against people breaching terms.
The President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane said: “It should be a matter of concern for society in general to achieve better co-parenting between separating couples. It is thought that about 40 per cent of all separating parents bring issues about their children’s care to the Family Court for determination, rather than exercising parental responsibility and sorting problems out themselves. This figure is both startling and worrying. Where there are no issues of domestic abuse or child protection, parents ought to be able, or encouraged, to make arrangements for their own child, rather than come to a court of law and a judge resolve the issues.”
I have been urging the Ministry of Justice to look closely at proposals from distinguished groups such as the Family Solutions Group, who wrote the report "What About Me?", and the Private Law Working Group led by respected members of the judiciary. Other leading organisations like Resolution and charities like OnePlusOne, Tavistock and Relate have been gathering evidence in this field for decades.
We now have shovel ready solutions for the government to adopt and I know that Ministers care about families and children going through separation, so why wait any longer?
Siobhan Baillie is the Conservative MP for Stroud and a former family law solicitor.
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