A report is due to be published by the Family Solutions Group, a subgroup of the Private Law Working Group, on reframing the nature of parental separation. It follows 30 years on from the implementation of the Children Act 1989, which was ground-breaking legislation for family law and navigating disputes involving children. The report concludes that there should be a more satisfactory and cooperative way of separating families than there is at present. It highlights that often the court is treated as the ‘third parent’ when adjudicating on child arrangement issues and that more often than not, young people and their voices are drowned out in this decision making process.
In the first instance, emphasis in the report is given that family proceedings should be used to ‘resolve issues’ as opposed to be a way of ‘dispute resolution’. Family separation is an emotional time often leaving those involved extremely vulnerable. Parties often enter into legal proceedings prematurely, in the absence of there being any other appropriate support in place. The report recommends a movement away from language such as ‘dispute’ to ‘issue’ signifies how parents should be supported in resolving issues together rather than engaging in a process which will set them further apart. The report considers that the holistic approach of this idea should then promote long-term cooperative parenting without the need for recourse to legal proceedings in the future.
In respect of alternative support being in place to reduce the need for litigation, the report recognises the need for this to be in all aspects, from emotional wellbeing to assistance in making child arrangements. Importance is therefore placed on local networks of family professionals to promote this, such as the GP or local authority. It is recommended that the professionals around the family form an interpreted support unit instead of an individualistic nature of involvement. For legal professionals, it is recommended mandatory training should be implemented, focusing on alternative options to resolving disputes.
Significantly, the report recommends the introduction of an ‘IAM’: an Information and Assessment meeting. This would occur as soon as possible after a separation and would hopefully have a different role to a MIAM (Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting). The report considers that when parties attend a MIAM, it is then too late to assess the family situation, particularly given the MIAM’s primary purpose as a pathway to litigation. The aim of the IAM is to avoid families jumping to litigation too soon, and instead trying to resolve issues in a non-litigation based and more cooperative manner. It remains to be seen exactly how the IAM will come into being and how this will be managed and funded. There are talks taking place with The Family Mediation Standard Board which should provide more light in this regard. In any event, the report recommends a pilot in which all family professionals, from local authorities to GPs, direct parents to attend an IAM.
A primary concern throughout the report is the decreasing prominence the subject child’s voice has in legal proceedings. For young people, their parents separating is a highly volatile and upsetting experience. The report recognises this and recommends parental conflict be treated as an adverse childhood experience. The report recommends that more should be done to raise awareness in society of the harm children can suffer from their parents being in direct conflict with one another. Adjustments to the national curriculum, so that resources are made available in PSHE lessons, is a recommendation of the report. More radically, there is call for the relaxation of s 10 of the Children Act which allows young people to find a route back to court of their own accord if they are competent to do so.
Whilst the Family Solutions Group confirms the report only touches on the surface of the ‘pre-court space’, the changes and recommendations path a new way ahead for resolving parental issues and reducing family conflict. You can read the full report here.
This article has been written by Annie Leach, Paralegal, Family department. We welcome non acrimonious ways of resolving family disputes. If you would like to find out how we can help you, please contact a member of the team.