Adoption, a McKenzie friend and statistics: The last week in family law

Sandeep and Reena Mander, a British Sikh couple, are taking legal proceedings against an adoption agency, claiming that they were advised by the agency not to apply to adopt because of their “cultural heritage”. The couple said that they had wanted to adopt a child of any ethnic background, but they were told that, as only white children were in need, white British or European applicants would be given preference. Accordingly, they were unlikely to be selected. Instead, they allege that they were advised to try to adopt from India, a country with which they have no close links. Sandeep Mander told The Times: “Giving an adopted child – no matter what race – the security of a loving home was all we wanted to do. What we didn’t expect was a refusal for us to even apply for adoption, not because of our incapability to adopt, but because our cultural heritage was defined as ‘Indian/Pakistani’”.

Court proceedings relating to the terminally ill infant Charlie Gard have come to an end, following the rejection by the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECHR’) of the parents’ appeal against the decision that doctors could withdraw life support. The ECHR said in a press release that the decisions by the English courts to agree to the doctors’ request to stop providing Charlie with life-sustaining treatment had been “meticulous, thorough and reviewed at three levels of jurisdiction with clear and extensive reasoning giving relevant and sufficient support for their conclusion”. The ECHR also said that: “the domestic courts had concluded, on the basis of extensive, high-quality expert evidence, that it was most likely Charlie was being exposed to continued pain, suffering and distress and that undergoing experimental treatment with no prospects of success would offer no benefit, and continue to cause him significant harm.”

A paid McKenzie friend has been denied permission to appeal against an order excluding him from representing a mother in family proceedings relating to two children. Her Honour Judge Carol Atkinson said that the McKenzie friend had a ‘fundamental misunderstanding’ of the limitations of his role. She said that he had “on occasions described his role as ‘quasi-solicitorial’.” However, she continued: “There is no such thing as ‘almost’ a solicitor.  You are either a solicitor or you are not.” She also said that the McKenzie friend had asked a social worker to amend her Core Assessment, before handing it to the judge, commenting that it was: “utterly inconceivable that it would ever be right for one litigation party to amend the evidence produced by a professional witness”. She concluded: “If ‘professional’ McKenzie Friends are to assist parents in such emotionally fraught cases they must be sensitive … and mindful of the dangers of becoming an irritant hindering the process rather than giving the assistance that the courts have been used to in the past.”

Legal aid statistics for January to March this year have revealed that mediation information and assessment meetings (‘MIAMs’) were down by 5% compared to the same period last year, and currently stand at around half of the levels they were at prior to the abolition of legal aid for most private law family matters in 2013. However, they were up on the previous quarter. The number of MIAMs fell sharply after the abolition of legal aid, and numbers have fluctuated since then. Before the abolition, over 80% of referrals to publicly funded MIAMs were made by solicitors holding a legal aid contract. After abolition this dropped to less than 10%. Other sources of referral have increased, but not by enough to compensate for the loss in legal aid solicitor referrals.

And finally, the latest family court statistics, for January to March this year, have been published. The main points included that 65,714 new cases were started, up 4% on January to March 2016; that the average time for a care or supervision case to reach first disposal was 28 weeks, up slightly on the same quarter in 2016, and at its highest level since mid-2015; and that the number of private law applications increased by 11% compared to the equivalent quarter in 2016, whilst the number of disposals increased 2% over the same period.