UK Family Law Reform

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Parent mediation has worked well in the US, so why can't Britain get it right?

Thursday 25 March 2004

Give the British establishment an idea which is proved to be effective, and what does it do? Timidly imposes the least effective part - and then expresses surprise at the unsatisfactory outcome.

In this case, it is the use of "fair play" parenting plans plus mediation to reduce the number of protracted and bloody court battles between couples over child contact.

The scheme has worked well in Florida's family courts - not least because it has triggered a cultural change. An appearance in court is a last resort. Instead, parents are firmly and speedily steered towards ancillary help. Unless an adult or children are at risk, the norm is for a non-resident parent to have contacted at least one evening a week and alternate weekends. Child support is expected on pain of imprisonment. Mothers or fathers who refuse to comply with the agreement face penalties that eventually may put them in jail.

Mediation is used to help refine the agreement, not argue about whether access should be permitted in the first place. Also, the adults are required to go to parenting classes to encourage them to stop behaving like children when their offspring move from one house to the other. Dud dads and mums with addiction problems are propelled into programmes to help them back on track. Jobs are found for the unemployed. In short, this is a holistic approach enforced on parents to ensure that after a couple separates, for the sake of the child, the family continues.

After a painfully long period of consultation, what do we have here? A pussyfooting voluntary exercise which, far from achieving the profound psychological change that is required, will simply widen the chasm between warring parents.

The Department for Education and Skills is overseeing three pilot projects. It is difficult to see why the intransigent will co-operate simply because children's minister Margaret Hodge has invited them to do so.

This could have been the tipping point - a scheme with teeth that sharply reminds couples that the child comes first. Instead, yet again, the ministerial fear of being accused of interfering in the private lives of families means the rock of reform, so near the brow of the hill, has rolled back, squashing the spirit of thousands of children.

In Florida the scheme is labelled "therapeutic justice". In its gutless application here, it will be neither therapeutic nor just - simply a waste of money.

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