UK Family Law Reform

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Court battles over children to be cut under early intervention proposals

· Family court service urged to 'sort it, not report it'
· Blueprint to be revealed to judges today

Warring ex-partners will no longer be given free rein to wage lengthy and damaging court battles over their children, under proposals to be unveiled to judges today. The blueprint for radical change will see many fewer cases reaching court and a move to early intervention to try to reach workable solutions that take more account of children's needs and feelings. If the judges approve, Cafcass, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, will spend much less time drawing up lengthy reports for judges and much more on helping split families work out how to provide the parenting their children need after divorce.

The new brief for the organisation, which represents children's interests in court cases, is to "sort it, not report it". By April 2007, Cafcass aims to move to intensive work in the first six weeks in every case referred to it by the courts. Most separating couples manage to reach their own arrangements for their children but around one in 10 still take their cases to court. Their battles are the single biggest drain on the civil legal aid budget. In 2005-06, more than 280,000 family cases were started with the help of legal aid, compared with 3,500 clinical negligence cases.

But more influential in the move away from the adversarial model of family justice is the growing realisation, backed up by research, that court battles fuel parental conflict and the fallout can mean long-lasting harm for the children.

"A massive amount of scarce professional time, including court time, is wasted when Cafcass practitioners try to reason with parents who are hostile to each other or who have stopped communicating," says the organisation's consultation paper, Every Day Matters. "Parents locked in conflict find it difficult to put their children's needs above their own, and experience profound difficulties in post-separation parenting."

The militant fathers' group Fathers4Justice, which relaunched at the weekend by invading the stage for the National Lottery TV show, will be heartened to see that Cafcass's new strategy emphasises shared parenting rather than residence with one parent and contact with the other. The aim is to keep parenting after separation as consistent as possible with family life before the split. This will not necessarily mean equal time for each parent, which may not fit the child's circumstances, but will normally mean substantial time with the non-resident parent, including overnight and weekend stays.

Instead of the long reports they now do for the courts, Cafcass advisers would produce a shorter "analysis" aimed at resolving issues and reducing conflict. "Making contact happen is important but making it work is just as important," said Anthony Douglas, the organisation's chief executive.

The analysis might conclude, for instance, that a father was attempting to control his ex-partner too much and needed to back off or that a mother was frustrating her ex-partner's contact with the children because she just wanted "to get on with a new life". The change of approach coincides with new powers for the courts to order parents who frustrate contact between their children and ex-partner to attend counselling, information or guidance sessions, and to impose penalties on those who flout contact orders.

Experience in the US shows that once parents learn how their behaviour can inflict lasting emotional damage on their children and are taught how to deal with each other in a civilised way through conflict management techniques, most are able to cooperate over their children's future. New national standards for Cafcass from April 2007 will include ensuring that children's wishes and feelings are listened to and conveyed to everyone in the case.

In some parts of the country children over a certain age already come to the Cafcass office and talk to a family court adviser while their parents go through a dispute resolution session. The children's comments are fed back to the parents, who may not be fully aware of their feelings. "A structured session with a child and then feeding back exactly what the child is thinking and feeling to the parents often has a huge impact. Suddenly the parents realise what the impact of their behaviour is on the child," said Mr Douglas.

"The key to it is, in a structured way, to listen to what children are saying they want, and to help the parents understand that if they don't stop what they're doing they'll destroy their kids emotionally. "If a fraction of the resources that go into bitterly contested cases were put into some of these more successful dispute resolution models, we would be a lot better off and so would kids."

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