A judgment, reforms and domestic violence: The last week in family law

It has been reported that the first arbitration held under the children arbitration scheme, which was introduced in July 2016, has taken place. The case concerned a dispute between parents about child arrangements, specific issues and general exercise of parental responsibility. The matter was referred to arbitration at the Dispute Resolution Appointment in ongoing court proceedings as the court was unable to offer a final hearing date for almost three months, and the parties needed the matter to be decided within the next couple of weeks. The arbitrator made a final decision just ten days after the date of referral.

A judge has been praised for writing a judgment in plain English, so that it could be understood by the children involved in the case. The judgment of Mr Justice Peter Jackson in Lancashire County Council v M & Ors was actually handed down in February, but was only published last week. The case concerned care proceedings relating to four children, in which there was a worry that the father of the youngest two children, who is a Muslim with extreme views, might try to take them to Syria. The judgment related to Mr Justice Jackson’s findings of fact, care orders subsequently being made in April, on the basis of a plan for the children to live with their mother and grandmother. Mr Justice Jackson went to considerable lengths to write the judgment in plain English, so that it was comprehensible, in particular for the children involved. The judgment even included ‘smiley face’ emojis, which had appeared in evidence.

The Ministry of Justice has launched a consultation on the reform of the justice system to meet the changing needs and expectations of everyone who uses our courts and tribunals, by publishing a consultation paper entitled Transforming our justice system, along with a joint statement from The Lord Chancellor, Lord Chief Justice, and the Senior President of Tribunals on their shared vision for the future of Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunal Service. Transformation of the courts and tribunals will be based on three core principles: that the system is just, that it is proportionate (for example in terms of cost) and that it is accessible to all. In relation to family courts there is talk of helping separating couples resolve disputes between themselves by digitising and simplifying processes and providing more information to enable people to make the right arrangements themselves, and there is also a proposal to simplify the divorce process, and put as much as possible of it online.

The President of the Family Division Sir James Munby has said that the family courts face a ‘clear and imminent crisis’, caused by the relentless increase in the number of care cases they must handle. In his latest View from the President’s Chambers he notes that, according to Cafcass’s official figures, in the last ten years care cases have risen from 6,786 to an estimated 14,713 for the current year. He calls for research into the causes of the increase, but suggests that changes in the way local authorities deal with the issue of child abuse and neglect must be playing a significant role. As to what can be done to address the crisis he says that we need to improve the way in which we handle care cases and to concentrate on solving underling problems within families, rather than just providing solutions.

MPs have called for the government to carry out a full review of family courts in order to stop them being used by violent men to perpetuate abuse against their partners and children. The MPs were debating research by Women’s Aid which revealed that between 2005 and 2015, 19 children in 12 families were killed by violent fathers who had been allowed to see them through formal and informal child contact arrangements. They called upon the new justice secretary, Liz Truss, to act swiftly to tackle what they called the deep-seated cultural attitudes among family court judges, which they said put the rights of abusive men over the safety of women and children.

Finally, and still on the subject of domestic violence but from opposite side, new figures  released by the Crown Prosecution Service show that the number of women convicted of domestic violence is at a record high. The figures indicated that 1,850 women were convicted of perpetrating the offence in 2006, and that that figure rose to 5,641 in 2015. Campaigners say that the data serves as a reminder that while the overwhelming majority of domestic abusers are male, women also commit serious abuse and their victims must be considered and supported. Commenting on the figures Mark Brooks, Chair of the ManKind Initiative, said: “These growth in convictions over the last decade show both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service have woken up to the fact that women also commit domestic abuse. Given over 100,000 men report to the police every year as victim of this crime, the number of prosecutions should still be far higher.”