Child maintenance, adoption support and a suicidal child: The last week in family law

The Department for Work and Pensions (‘DWP’) has updated its guidance which sets out how it will decide if a victim of domestic violence or abuse is exempt from the Child Maintenance Service (‘CMS’) application fee. Since June 2014 there has been a £20 fee to apply to the 2012 child maintenance scheme run by the CMS. Victims of domestic violence or abuse do not have to pay this fee. The guidance explains how the DWP decide whether a person is a victim of domestic violence or abuse, and who the person applying for maintenance must have reported the violence or abuse to. Abuse is defined as “Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse towards the applicant, which is between persons aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality.” It can encompass but is not limited to the following types of abuse: psychological, physical, sexual, financial and emotional. The definition will now also include an applicant who has witnessed the abuse of their child by a current or previous partner, or by a member of their own or the partner’s family.

The Department for Education has announced that over £52 million has now been released through the Adoption Support Fund, which has helped 22,000 children. The fund was launched across England in May 2015, to help struggling families who adopt some of the country’s most vulnerable children, and has reached almost 18,000 homes, providing much-needed emotional support. Announcing the success of the fund, Minister for Children and Families Robert Goodwill also confirmed that a further £5 million will be invested in a number of innovative projects across the country, designed to improve families’ experiences of adoption. This is part of a government drive to deliver the best possible services for vulnerable children. Mr Goodwill said: “Every parent wants their child to grow up feeling loved and understood, and anyone with the commitment and compassion to adopt a child should have the backing of a strong support network. We know that caring for these young people, particularly those with more complex needs, can be a struggle at times. With the right therapeutic support, children and families will be able to embrace the new life ahead of them, and I’m delighted that the Adoption Support Fund has supported so many thousands of people already, as part of our plan for a fairer society.”

The President of the Family Division Sir James Munby, who last week said that society should be “ashamed” for not protecting a suicidal 17 year old girl, has approved a care plan for her. In his judgment last week Sir James criticised the lack of supervision available for the girl, and said that there would be “blood on our hands” if she did not receive adequate supervision upon her release from secure custody. The girl will be moved to a special unit this week, after doctors managed to find her a place. The secure unit where she has been living has spent £125,000 on extra staff to care for her. The unit said the Youth Justice Board “failed” to provide additional resources to maintain her safety, despite repeated requests.

High Court judge Mr Justice Mostyn has spoken again about new child support rules which can lead to wealthy parents paying little or no maintenance for their children. In the case the father was a millionaire but lived on his capital and only paid “the pitiful minimum sum of £7 a week”. Under the old rules in such cases the amount of the maintenance could have been varied upwards on the grounds that the non-resident parent had “assets”. However, the rules were changed in 2013 and the “assets” ground of variation was removed from the latest regime.  Mr Justice Mostyn described as ‘dispiriting’ the suggestion by a government minister that it would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to deal with such cases. He said: “To empower a factfinder to determine if arrangements have been made to place assets in non-income-producing structures would not, on any view, be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming; but even if it were relatively expensive and time-consuming, why as a matter of justice should the exercise not be carried out?” He added that if the ground were not reinstated then he foresaw more cases going to the courts, with the courts ordering non-resident parents to make larger lump sum payments for their children.

And finally, Tini Owens, the wife who lost her appeal against the refusal of the court to grant her a divorce, has been granted permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. In March the Court of Appeal decided not to allow her to divorce her husband because his behaviour, as found in the lower courts, was not considered ‘unreasonable’. Mrs Owens’ legal team will argue that the Courts’ emphasis on trying to find that a Respondent’s behaviour is in some way “unreasonable” is wrong. It will be argued that this is a “linguistic trap”, and that the statute does not require unreasonable behaviour, but simply behaviour such that the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with the respondent.