Cafcass figures, McKenzie friends and civil partnerships: The last two weeks in family law

A High Court judge has ruled that doctors can withdraw life support from a sick baby with a rare genetic condition, against his parents’ wishes. Specialists at Great Ormond Street Hospital said eight-month-old Charlie Gard has irreversible brain damage and should be moved to palliative care, so that he can be allowed to die with dignity. His parents had wanted to take him to the US for a treatment trial. However, Mr Justice Francis said he made the decision with the “heaviest of hearts” but with “complete conviction” that it was in the best interests of the child. Charlie’s parents have indicated that they will be appealing the decision.

The latest figures for care applications and private law demand, for March 2017, have been published by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (‘Cafcass’), the organisation that represents children in family court cases. In that month the service received a total of 1,288 care applications, which is a 4.3% increase compared to those received in March 2016, and the second highest monthly figure on record. As to private law demand, Cafcass received a total of 3,907 new private law cases, which is a 16% increase on March 2016 levels, bringing the number of private law cases back up to the level they were at prior to the abolition of legal aid for most such cases in April 2013.

‘Professional’ McKenzie friends associated with fathers’ rights groups play on their “uncertainty and sense of victimhood” to attract business, academic research has found. The research was carried out by Dr Angela Melville, senior lecturer at Flinders Law School in Adelaide, Australia, who also found that some McKenzie friends suggested that lawyers were unscrupulous, only interested in fees rather than progressing a case, and that some “draw on misogynistic discourses that women are vindictive manipulators, who make up false allegations in order to block fathers from fully realising their rights over children.” Dr Melville suggests that the problem could be lessened by extending the pool of non-lawyer providers of legal assistance, for example having law students work as McKenzie friends under the supervision of a qualified lawyer, and having greater regulation of McKenzie friends.

The Prisons and Courts Bill has been dropped, ahead of the dissolution of Parliament in the run-up to the general election. The Bill could have been pushed through Parliament before dissolution, in a process known as ‘wash-up’, but this Bill still had too many stages to go through, as it had not yet been to the House of Lords. Amongst other things the Bill would have given courts the power to put an end to domestic violence victims being cross-examined by their alleged abusers in the family courts. There is of course nothing to stop a Conservative government, if returned at the election, coming back to the reforms set out in the Bill.

A survey of 2000 people by market researchers Populus has found that 57% of respondents think that civil partnerships should be made available to both mixed-sex and same-sex couples, while only 20% think they should be scrapped altogether. The campaign for Equal Civil Partnerships argue that the poll results show that pledging to extend civil partnerships would be a popular choice for parties contesting the June 8th general election. Matt Hawkins, Campaign Manager for the Equal Civil Partnerships Campaign, said: “This survey adds to the mound of evidence demonstrating that giving every couple the option of getting a civil partnership would be the popular and fair thing to do. Over 76,000 people have already signed a petition calling on the government to extend civil partnerships, MPs from all parties support our cause, and countries such as France, Sweden, and New Zealand and regions of the British Isles like the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, and Isle of Man have already shown that mixed-sex civil partnerships are easy to introduce and warmly welcomed.”

And finally, Tini Owens, who last month lost her appeal against the refusal of the court to grant her a divorce, has applied for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. The divorce was refused because she had failed to prove that her husband had behaved unreasonably, despite the fact that the marriage had broken down. This left her, in her own words, “locked into a loveless and desperately unhappy marriage”. Her barrister, Philip Marshall QC, said: “Hopefully her appeal will allow the Supreme Court to review the old case law and find a workable solution which is both intellectually honest and better reflects modern thinking and social attitudes.”