Child maintenance figures, divorce and child health: The last week in family law

The Supreme Court has reported that the parents of the brain-damaged infant Charlie Gard intend to seek permission to appeal to the Court against the decision that doctors can take him off of life support. A panel of three Supreme Court Justices will sit on the afternoon of Thursday 8 June to decide whether or not to grant permission to appeal. Meanwhile, the Court of Appeal has ordered a stay until midnight on 8th June, or a further order of the Supreme Court. If permission to appeal is granted, a further hearing date will be set to consider the substantive appeal.

The Department for Work and Pensions (‘DWP’) has published information on cases being processed under the 2012 statutory child maintenance scheme by the Child Maintenance Service (‘CMS’), covering the period of August 2013 to March 2017. The DWP says that the CMS’s caseload stood at 322,800 as of the end of March 2017, an increase of 11% from December 2016, that there are about 350,000 children benefitting from the scheme, and that outstanding Maintenance Arrears were £113.7m in March 2017, 17% higher than the December 2016 figures.

Family lawyers have reported seeing ‘far more acrimonious’ allegations in unreasonable behaviour divorce petitions since the Court of Appeal decision in Owens v Owens. Mrs Owens was refused a divorce because the court held that she had failed to prove that Mr Owens had behaved in such a way that she could not reasonably be expected to live with him. She appealed against this decision to the Court of Appeal, but her appeal was dismissed in March this year. She is now appealing to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, lawyers are reporting that divorce petitions are now being prepared with far more serious allegations than previously, for fear of being rejected by the court. There is concern that this will lead to more animosity, which in turn will lead to fewer divorce cases being resolved by agreement.

On the subject of acrimonious divorce, a scientific study has suggested that children whose parents have a messy divorce are three times more likely to endure a lifetime of colds as adults. The study, by Carnegie Mellon University, found that early stresses in life appear to affect the immune system, increasing the chance of inflammation. Researchers said anxiety in childhood may influence their susceptibility to disease up to 40 years later. For the study, 201 healthy adults were quarantined, experimentally exposed to a virus that causes a common cold and monitored for five days for the development of a respiratory illness. Those whose parents separated and were not on speaking terms were found to be more than three times as likely to develop a cold compared to those whose parents stayed together or split up amicably. Professor Sheldon Cohen of the University said: “Our results target the immune system as an important carrier of the long-term negative impact of early family conflict.” He added that the results also indicate that all divorces are not equal, suggesting that parents who kept in touch after splitting up could protect their children’s health.

And finally, a judge has ruled that a father does not have to be given notice of care proceedings concerning his child, as this would create a risk for the mother. His Honour Judge Bellamy found that the father had never had a close relationship with the child, and accepted that the mother lives in fear of him finding her and making threats to her. He noted that the father has a long criminal record and is currently serving a six-year prison sentence for an offence of violence. He said: “I am satisfied that, if [the father] became aware of these proceedings, that would give rise to a degree of risk to the mother and her family, albeit that I assess that risk and its consequences as being no more than moderate.”