UK Family Law Reform

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Parliament launches review of family court cases

by Jean-Yves Gilg

The Lawyer - 20th September 2004

Consequence or coincidence, as another angry father protests for better access to his children, MPs announce the launch of an inquiry into the effectiveness of the family court system.

Divorced fathers who staged a series of stunts as part of their ongoing campaign for better access to their children could readily claim that their action is paying off as the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee announced today the launch of an inquiry into the family court system; but whether fathers throwing purple flour in the Commons or posing as Batman on a balcony at Buckingham Palace have actually had any influence on the process is another question.

For the man in charge of overseeing the review, Liberal Democrat MP Alan Beith, Chairman of the Committee, the answer is an unequivocal “no”. “We began to work towards an inquiry like this many months ago and it partly flows out of work we did over a year ago,” said the MP in an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. “We published a report on the Children’s And Family Courts Advisory Service (‘CAFCASS’) which was very critical [...] so it’s an interest we’ve had for some time.”

“Every Member of Parliament knows, not because of stunts and things like that, but because of the post bag and the cases they’ve dealt with”, the MP continued, “but equally there are mothers who are concerned that they may be pressed into a situation where someone who has committed domestic violence on them, and may even have a record for doing that, is given access to their children in circumstances where they worry about their safety.” The committee will also want to hear from organisations representing children about how they view the court process.

The inquiry is only beginning but Alan Beith indicated that among the many questions they will be looking at is that of equal access and whether the interests of children should come first. However, equal access was explicitly ruled out by Lord Falconer when he announced the publication of the Green Paper on parental separation in July: “there cannot and will not be an automatic presumption of 50/50 contact. Children cannot be divided like the furniture or the CD collection. It's more complex than that."

The concerns of the committee’s chairman however, are that we may be expecting the court to do the impossible, with judges having to rule on cases “in an atmosphere of great emotion and anguish in family disputes.” According to the MP, out-of-court processes could be more likely to provide the answer: “Resolving problems about contact and access between people who fall out, seriously fall out when a relationship has broken down, is probably in some ways best done through a mediating process rather than expecting a kind of judgment of Solomon where a court can allocate time and parcel out children, and expect that to be readily enforceable.”

The deadline for responses to the Green Paper is 1 November. Meanwhile, the Select Committee will be gathering written and oral evidence from interested parties with a view to publishing its report early in the new year.

The MANAGEMENT of GREEN PAPER Family Policy 20th September 2004