Children, domestic violence and legal aid: The last week in family law

Family Justice Minister Simon Hughes has announced that from the age of ten, children and young people involved in all family court hearings in England and Wales will have access to judges to make their views and feelings known. Speaking at the Family Justice Young People’s Board, he said: “Children and young people must by law have their views heard before decisions are made about their future, and where decisions are made that will impact them. At the moment, it is still too often that their views are not heard. Our commitment to giving children the chance to speak to a judge and make clear their views means children will not only be seen in family courts but they will have their own voice heard. This will put them firmly at the heart of the Family Justice System.”

David Cameron has said that domestic violence could become a specific criminal offence. The Prime Minister said that his Government needs to get a grip on domestic abuse in Britain and make the justice system more “sympathetic” to victims. Backbench MPs have called for a tough US-style law that would make domestic abuse a specific offence carrying up to 14 years in prison. The campaign follows on from a successful effort to bring in new stalking laws in England and Wales. Campaigners want a legal framework for domestic abuse allowing police and prosecutors to examine of an offender’s course of conduct over a period of time, not just an individual incident.

New figures have shown a substantial increase in the number of domestic violence incidents that have been dealt with under the “Community Resolution” procedure, rather than by prosecution of the offender. The procedure was introduced four years ago as a way of dealing with minor offences such as trivial thefts and ‘inconsequential’ assaults. Under it, the police expect the offender to apologise to the victim or pay them compensation, in which case there is no prosecution. Labour’s shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has warned that the policy is putting thousands of victims of domestic violence at risk. She says that the procedure was never intended to be used for domestic violence and has promised that a new Labour government will pass legislation banning its use in domestic violence cases.

The Department for Education has announced that all school children adopted from care are to benefit from £20 million of additional pupil premium money to get the support they need to thrive at school. The money, worth £1,900 per pupil, will help around an extra 10,000 pupils to close the attainment gap and transform their future life chances. Previously, only children adopted from care since December 2005 were eligible. Children adopted from care do not perform as well as their classmates at school. In 2013, less than half of adopted children reached the expected levels of reading, writing and maths at key stage 2, compared with 75% of non-adopted children.

The government has also announced that 29 councils and voluntary adoption agencies are being to allow people approved to adopt to search the national Adoption Register from this September. The pilot will allow approved adopters to learn more about the children who are waiting for home. They will be able to find out about their hobbies, likes and dislikes, and hear them speak in videos and pictures. Opening up the register is designed to ensure that children are placed more quickly with families who can give them stability and security. Strict safeguards will be put in place to ensure the safety and privacy of children and approved adopters.

Legal aid cuts have left family courts ‘at breaking point’, according to family lawyers’ association Resolution. Jo Edwards, the new chair of Resolution, says that she fears that a two-tier system of justice is emerging where private clients opt out of overcrowded, slow-moving public courts in favour of private arbitration hearings. Cuts to legal aid have deprived separating couples of funding for representation and legal advice, leaving them to navigate their own way through the courts as they attempt to reach settlements on complex, emotional issues of child custody and division of family assets, she says. She estimates that this has resulted in as many as two-thirds of cases going through the family courts now involving at least one side which has no lawyer to provide help. Such cases take more time because judges have to help litigants in person deal with their claims.

And finally, a former oil trader once estimated to be worth nearly £40m has been given a four-week suspended jail sentence after a judge ruled he owed his ex-wife £360,000 in unpaid maintenance. In 2011, Mr Justice Moylan ordered Michael Prest to make a lump sum payment of £17.5 million and periodical payments totalling nearly £300,000 a year to his wife and their four children. His ex-wife Yasmin Prest applied for him to be committed to prison for failing to comply with the order. Concluding that Mr Prest could afford to pay what he owed, Mr Justice Moylan ruled that he had wilfully refused or neglected to pay maintenance, and handed down the jail sentence, which will be suspended for three months.