Difficult cases, a divorce pilot and child maintenance: The last week in family law

There have been further developments in the Charlie Gard case, which was mentioned here last week. To recap, specialists at Great Ormond Street Hospital said eight-month-old Charlie has irreversible brain damage and should be moved to palliative care, so that he can be allowed to die with dignity. Mr Justice Francis in the High Court agreed that doctors can withdraw life support from him, against his parents’ wishes, and despite the fact that they had raised the funds to take him to the US for a treatment trial. The first further development was that Shadow housing minister Ruth Cadbury called on the Justice Secretary Liz Truss “to do the right thing” and intervene in the case, to allow Charlie to have that treatment. However, justice minister Phillip Lee told her that the judgment “should be respected”. The other development is that the parents have indicated that they are appealing the decision, asking the Court of Appeal to re-examine it. A lawyer representing Great Ormond Street Hospital said of the treatment that it is not “pioneering or life-sustaining”, but a purely experimental process with no real prospect of improving Charlie’s condition or quality of life.

A local authority has been granted permission to withdraw an application for a care order in respect of a young baby who was removed from her parents when they were accused of abusing her. Social services had been attempting to have the baby put into care after she collapsed when about five months old in August 2016. Her father was also arrested on suspicion of causing grievous bodily harm, as officials believed she had been shaken. However, the local authority decided to withdraw after experts established that she suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome type IV, a condition which causes “easy bruising”, and could have accounted for her injuries. At a family court hearing in Milton Keynes Judge Karen Venables said that the parents had lived through months of “unimaginable horror”.

Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Division, has harshly criticised the conduct of Brighton & Hove City Council in a complex adoption case concerning a four-year old girl. He said that the length of the proceedings had largely determined the outcome, which required him to decide whether the child should be adopted by her foster parents, or live with her father and three older siblings. He called the delay ‘deplorable’, and said that the outcome (that the child be adopted) might have been different had the case been resolved sooner. He said that at one stage in the proceedings Brighton & Hove’s conduct as showed a “cavalier approach to the facts and disregard for precision”, and he also criticised the council over disclosures made to the father’s employer that were “inaccurate and misleading”, and led to him losing his job.

A trial has begun to ‘de-link’ financial remedy applications from divorce proceedings. Since 2015 divorce cases have been centralised in eleven specialist divorce centres. However, if a contested financial application is made, the whole divorce proceedings are transferred to a local court to be dealt with. This builds in delay for court users and is resource-intensive for HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) staff to administer. From 2 May the first step to improving this service will be piloted at the South West Regional Divorce centre in Southampton. It will see the administrative de-linking of financial proceedings from divorce so that the main divorce proceedings can remain in the specialist centre and staff and judiciary at the local hearing centres can work independently on the contested financial proceedings. Consent applications will remain at the divorce centres. A separate financial remedy file, using the same case number as the divorce proceedings, will be created at the local hearing centre and HMCTS staff will ensure that the dates of any decree nisi or absolute are highlighted on the file. If it is a success, it expected that this pilot will be rolled out to all the courts in England and Wales in June 2017.

And finally, a report by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee says that the new Child Maintenance Service (CMS) must be prepared and resourced to automatically take-over the more difficult or complicated child support non-payment cases from the Child Support Agency, and be ‘toothier’ in enforcing payment. The report says gaps in the CMS’ capabilities in domestic violence cases, or in dealing with fraudulent means declarations, must be closed, and the Government must set out how it is going to tackle collection of arrears and enforcement in ongoing cases. Heidi Allen MP, Member of the Committee, said: “We know the balance between state and family is one of the hardest to get right. But there is an opportunity to get control of this decades old issue, by improving the new Child Maintenance Service.”