Civil partnership, legal aid, maintenance enforcement and alcohol abuse: The last week in family law

Tim Loughton MP’s Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Private Members’ Bill has received an unopposed second reading. The Bill would require the Secretary of State to “make arrangements for the preparation of a report assessing how the law ought to be changed to bring about equality between same-sex couples and other couples in terms of their future ability or otherwise to form civil partnerships”. Mr Loughton wants the law to be changed to allow heterosexual couples in England and Wales to form civil partnerships in the same way as gay couples, saying that his Bill would “correct an unintended, but glaring inequality”. Mr Loughton is confident ministers will be persuaded to back his position after they have carried out their review. However, Michelle Donelan, Conservative MP for Chippenham, said extending civil partnerships would “confuse and complicate commitment, not encourage commitment”. She said she would instead “rather see civil partnerships ceased altogether”. The Bill has now been committed to a Public Bill Committee, which will meet next on a date yet to be announced.

A new report by Coram Children’s Legal Centre, the charity that promotes and protects the rights of children, has found that since the legal aid cuts of 2013 thousands of children and families have been left without access to free legal advice and representation in many areas of civil law. Coram say that without funding for legal advice or representation, children have been left without a home, without legal status, excluded from education and separated from their family. The report finds that the removal of most of family, immigration and education law from the scope of legal aid has caused thousands of miscarriages of justice that have led to the breakup of families, the costly and often unlawful exclusion of children from education, and widespread destitution and exploitation among migrant families. Across all of these areas of law, say Coram, public awareness of people’s rights and legal remedies is low and sometimes actually falling. They say that this is especially true of the government’s intended safety net, the exceptional case funding system, which is in urgent need of reform so that children’s cases are considered in line with child rights standards.

The Official Solicitor has published an updated list of countries where parents can apply to enforce or change a child maintenance decision made in UK courts. The statutory child maintenance schemes administered by the Child Support Agency and the Child Maintenance Service can only accept an application, make a maintenance calculation and request payment from the non-resident parent if the parties to it are all “habitually resident” in the United Kingdom (unless an exception applies). Where a non-resident parent lives abroad, the parent with care can apply to a court in this country for a maintenance order. If the order is not paid the parent with care can apply for a reciprocal enforcement of the maintenance order if the country where the non-resident parent is residing is a listed reciprocating country.

And finally, a parliamentary report has found that over a third of child injuries and deaths through neglect are linked to parental alcohol abuse. The report, which was commissioned by a cross-bench group of MPs and peers, found that alcohol abuse by parents was behind horrific problems for children, and warned that budgets of alcohol and drug treatment programmes were being cut. The report also found that nearly a fifth (18%) of children reported feeling embarrassed by seeing their parent drunk, while 15% said their bedtime routine had been disrupted as a result of their parents drinking. A 2011 study found 61% of care applications in England involved misuse of alcohol and/or drugs. Liam Byrne, the Labour MP and chairman of the All-Party Group for Children of Alcoholics, who lost his father to alcoholism in 2015, said: “Parental alcohol misuse scars kids for life and can lead many into a life of drinking too much themselves. Millions of parents drink too much and their misuse of alcohol causes horrific problems for their children.”