Grandparents, child maintenance and online divorce: The last three weeks in family law

Grandparents, and also aunts and uncles, are to get more
‘access’ rights, under plans being considered by the Government. Following
pressure from MPs and campaigning groups, Justice Minister Lucy Frazer QC has
agreed to look at the rules allowing grandchildren to maintain contact with
grandparents after parental separation. Campaigners seek two changes: a
presumption in favour of contact between the child and its close relatives, and
the removal of the requirement for such relatives to have to obtain the leave
of the court before they can apply for a child arrangements (contact) order. Ms
Frazer said: “Grandparents play an important role in the lives of their
grandchildren, and I sympathise with those who experience the anguish of being
prevented from seeing their grandchildren if a parental relationship ends. I am
looking at what measures the Government could take to help more grandchildren
maintain contact with grandparents following parental separation and will make
an announcement about the Government’s plans in due course.”

The Department for Work and Pensions (‘DWP’) has published statistics
on cases processed under the 2012 statutory child maintenance scheme administered
by the Child Maintenance Service (‘CMS’), for the period August 2013 to
September 2018. Amongst the main stories were that 655,000 children are covered
by CMS arrangements, 422,600 through Direct Pay arrangements where the CMS
calculates the amount of maintenance to be paid and parents arrange the
payments between themselves, and 232,400 through the Collect & Pay Service,
whereby the CMS collects and manages the payments between the parents. There
was £231 million child maintenance due to be paid between July and September
2018, and £843.2 million in the last 12 months

The government has amended the Human Fertilisation and
Embryology Act 2008 to provide that single parents who have had a child born
through surrogacy are now able to apply for a parental order. Under the law
surrogate mothers and their spouses remain the legal parents of any children,
and therefore the parents who commissioned the surrogacy (i.e. the parents with
whom the child is to grow up) have to apply for a parental order, which transfers
the status of parenthood to them. However, until now a parental order could
only be applied for by two people in a relationship akin to a marriage. In a
case in 2016 in which a single man was refused a parental order the then
President of the Family Division Sir James Munby declared that this situation
was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The amendment to
the law remedies the incompatibility.

A £2.7 million fund to increase support for disadvantaged
families at risk of parental conflict has been announced by the Minister for
Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance, Justin Tomlinson. A press
release from the DWP and Mr Tomlinson says: “Parental conflict can range from a
lack of warmth and emotional distance, right through to verbal abuse. If
children are exposed to this sort of distress over longer periods of time,
their emotional and social development can be significantly affected. It may
stop children from doing as well at school or even impact their career chances
in later life. Children most at risk are those with parents who are out of
work, on low incomes, or struggling with physical and mental health
conditions.” The fund will be made up of 2 separate strands: £1.1 million of
funding for projects to support families at a greater risk of parental conflict,
and £1.6 million of funding for digital support to help parents find help
online. Mr Tomlinson, said: “Conflict between parents can have a devastating
and long-lasting impact on children, and it’s often caused by external
stresses. We want families experiencing problems to have easier access to help.
This innovative fund will develop solutions for parents to repair their
relationships, resolve any conflict and provide a safer environment for their
children to grow up.”

And finally, the Government has revealed that more than
23,000 applications for divorce have been made online since the service was
launched last April. That figure includes 455 applications filed between Christmas
Eve and New Year’s Day, with 13 submitted on Christmas Day itself. Justice
Minister Lucy Frazer commented: “These online services are already making a
difference to people who use the justice system. As we reach this milestone
it’s encouraging to see people are reporting these services work well for them
and are a better fit around their busy lives.”