Child support, adoption and court fees: The last week in family law

A survey on the evidence requirements for domestic violence victims who wish to apply for legal aid is being carried out by the Ministry of Justice. In order to qualify for legal aid, applicants must prove they have been, or are at risk of being, a victim of domestic violence by submitting at least one form of independent evidence from a prescribed list, for example a relevant unspent conviction for a domestic violence offence, or a letter from a health professional who has examined the person and is satisfied that they had injuries or a condition consistent with being a victim of domestic violence. The Ministry say they want to be confident that victims, or those at risk of domestic violence, are able to access legal aid and that the process for doing so is as straightforward as possible.

The single parent charity Gingerbread has published a new report which says that the government is failing to collect hundreds of millions of pounds of child maintenance arrears owed to children. According to the report, over the 23-year lifespan of the Child Support Agency (‘CSA’) almost £4 billion of unpaid maintenance arrears has accumulated, and the government estimates that only around 12 per cent of that sum is ever likely to be recovered. The mounting costs mean that, according to government figures, the average CSA maintenance debt owed to more than a million families is £2,067. At the same time, says Gingerbread, evidence suggests that decreasing effort is being put by the government into collecting more than £700m of arrears on existing cases. Gingerbread Chief Executive Fiona Weir said: “The accumulated level of CSA arrears is staggering and completely unacceptable. With analysis showing that one-in-five families are lifted out of poverty by child maintenance payments, this is vital money that parents, and their children can’t do without.”

The government has claimed that its adoption reforms will save councils hundreds of millions of pounds over the next decade. An impact assessment on the Children and Social Work Bill found that as much as £310 million could be saved over the next ten years, through more looked-after children being adopted and fewer fostering placements being needed. The assessment said that the shift will be helped by regional adoption mergers and speedier matches through the creation of a larger pool of prospective adopters. A spokesperson for leading fostering charity Fostering Network questioned the savings claim and said that: “While the proposals will speed up the process of adoption for those who it’s been considered to be in the best interest for, the number of children freed for adoption would likely remain relatively static.”

Still on the subject of adoption, the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby has ordered that the fact-finding hearing of a case where parents had their child adopted following care proceedings be reheard, after the couple were acquitted of criminal charges of causing injuries to their child. In the case an adoption order was made last year but further expert evidence was produced at a subsequent criminal trial. The prosecution against the parents was later abandoned and they were acquitted, on the basis that there was no case to answer. The birth parents then launched an appeal against the original fact-finding decision in the care proceedings. The appeal was supported by the child’s guardian and the adopted parents, but the adoptive parents have indicated that they would oppose any application to set aside the adoption order.

And finally, the House of Commons Justice Committee has published a report upon the recent increases in fees for court and tribunal proceedings. As to the increase in the fee on divorce petitions from £410 to £550 the committee said that the increase was unjustified, and called for it to be rescinded. The average cost of uncontested proceedings is estimated to be only £270, and therefore the fee amounted to a divorce tax. Whilst acknowledging that Ministry of Justice finances had not been ring-fenced from austerity, the committee warned that: “Where there is conflict between the objectives of achieving cost-recovery and preserving access to justice, the latter objective must prevail.”