UK Family Law Reform

Free information index

Family justice policy does not work for children, report says

A key element of the government's family justice policy is failing the children it was intended to help, a two-year study funded by the Ministry of Justice has concluded.

In-court conciliation, which helps separated and divorced parents reach agreements without a court hearing, has been successful in ensuring more fathers go on seeing their children after parents split, and spend more time with them.

But two years after agreements were concluded most parents' relationship with their ex-partner was as fraught as ever, according to research by the University of East Anglia. And while the parents' psychological wellbeing had improved over the two years, the children's was as bad as when the case first went to court.

A substantial body of research shows that the most important predictor of long-term outcomes for children whose parents split up is how well mothers and fathers can cooperate after the split, and ensure contact is free from conflict. This is "not the icing on the cake for children" but vital for their wellbeing, say the researchers, led by Liz Trinder, now reader in family studies at Newcastle University.

In-court conciliation was the centrepiece of the government's plans to deal with the 10% of cases where parents fail to agree whom children should live with, or how much contact the other should have. Instead of a legal battle, they go to court for an appointment, which can be just 30 minutes, in which they are expected to try to hammer out their own agreement.

The initiative, first tried out in a few courts, showed remarkable success in reaching agreements, and the current plan is to make it available in all the family courts in England and Wales.

But after two years, the research showed, the picture is less rosy than it first appeared. Conciliation makes contact happen, but does not make it work for children, the research report said.

Although contact was continuing, 40% of cases were back at court within two years. Even more cases would have gone back to court, the researchers suggest, but for the fact that many parents were "too battle-weary to face the emotional and financial costs of further proceedings".

For the majority of parents, "co-parental relationships were competitive or non-existent, trust was low and conflict was high". On a test of children's wellbeing called a strengths and difficulties questionnaire, roughly twice as many of the children of the 117 parents in the study had low or borderline scores as in the general population of children.

The researchers urge ministers to move to a more "therapeutic" approach, where parents are taught anger management and how to focus on the needs of their children. "Interventions are needed where the primary goal is to address parental attitudes ... and give children the best shot at contact that works for them, rather than for their parents and the courts."

Join us in campaigning for equality and justice.