A Brexit warning, children in care and McKenzie Friends: The last week in family law

The four children’s commissioners for England, Scotland,
Wales and Northern Ireland have warned that children’s safety could be put at
risk if the UK leaves the EU without proper plans for child protection. In a
letter to Stephen Barclay MP, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European
Union, the commissioners sought assurances on some of the immediate issues
facing children arising from Brexit, including child abuse, exploitation,
abduction and how family law matters are dealt with if a child has one parent
from the EU. A UK government spokesperson responded: “Protecting citizens,
including children, is the first responsibility of government. The UK has
proposed a comprehensive agreement on internal security that would ensure
ongoing co-operation in this area, so that both the UK and the EU can continue
to tackle fast-evolving threats. This includes taking any action required to
keep our children safe from harm. This commitment remains, whether we leave
with a deal or without one.”

Children’s rights charity Article 39 is launching judicial
review proceedings against the government over its claims that some protections
of children in care are “myths”. The charity is taking legal action to have
removed from circulation Department for Education guidance to English councils
responsible for vulnerable children. The so-called “myth-busting guide”
suggests some duties around social worker visits, protections for missing
children, and care leavers’ support can be cut back. Article 39’s Director,
Carolyne Willow, said: “It is deeply regrettable that the Minister did not
withdraw the document after we clearly set out the inconsistencies with the
current statutory framework. This document overwrites key obligations within
our children’s social care system, which were crafted over many years and
subject to detailed public consultations. The protections the guide presents as
mythical exist in our legislation and statutory guidance because of the real
needs of real children and young people. We are taking a risk financially with
this legal challenge but it’s the right thing to do. It shouldn’t fall to
vulnerable children and young people, many of whom are in the care of the
state, to have to go to court to defend the protections Parliament and
successive governments have given them.”

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett, and the Judicial
Executive Board have published their response to a consultation concerning
possible reforms to the courts’ approach to lay individuals, commonly known as
McKenzie Friends, who help individuals who litigate without the assistance of a
lawyer. The consultation was first opened in 2016, following a rise in reliance
by litigants on McKenzie Friends, as a result of cuts to legal aid. The
response said that the judiciary was “deeply concerned” about the proliferation
of McKenzie Friends who in effect provide professional services for reward when
they are ‘unqualified, unregulated, uninsured and not subject to the same
professional obligations and duties, both to their clients and the courts, as
are professional lawyers’. However, the response remained silent on whether
there should be a ban on fee-charging McKenzie Friends, saying that that is a
matter for the government. The response only supported the production of a ‘plain
language guide’ for McKenzie Friends and litigants-in-person, and updating the
current practice guidance on McKenzie Friends.

And finally, a woman who says her children were unfairly
taken from her could be jailed, after a judge concluded that she had wrongly
posted information relating to family court litigation on Facebook. In 2011
care orders were made in relation to Sara Root’s two children, who are both now
adults, and the children were placed with foster parents. Following the making
of the care orders, there were concerns by the local authority that attempts
had been made by Ms Root to disrupt the children’s placements, and the local
authority therefore applied to the court for an injunction order prohibiting
her from making any publication of court papers. This week the High Court ruled
that Ms Root had breached the injunction, not for the first time, by publishing
information about the case on Facebook. She will be sentenced for the breach
next month, but could be sent to prison for contempt of court.