Legal aid, mediation and adoption: The last week in family law (November 6th, 2014)

The President of the Family Division Sir James Munby has accused the government of washing its hands of the problem it has created by failing to provide legal aid for vulnerable parents in cases involving their children. In D (A Child) the parents faced having their son taken away from them by the local authority but were unable to get legal aid, despite both suffering from learning disabilities. Hearing the case, the President considered that it would be unthinkable that the parents should have to face the local authority’s application without proper representation. He said: “Thus far the State has simply washed its hands of the problem, leaving the solution to the problem which the State itself has created – for the State has brought the proceedings but declined all responsibility for ensuring that the parents are able to participate effectively in the proceedings it has brought – to the goodwill, the charity, of the legal profession. This is, it might be thought, both unprincipled and unconscionable.”

A new initiative to provide free family mediation began on the 3rd of November. From that date the first mediation session will be funded for both parties, provided at least one of them is already legally aided. The initiative follows the introduction on the 22nd of April of compulsory Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings (‘MIAMs’) when separating couples apply to court over children and financial matters. From the 1st of January 2015 there will be a third stage in the government’s work to improve mediation and encourage separating couples to use it to resolve disputes. From then, the Family Mediation Council (‘FMC’) is introducing a compulsory accreditation scheme and new professional standards which all mediators must work toward. All mediators and those working towards becoming a family mediator will be required to be registered with the FMC.

A judge has warned of the trauma ‘unleashed’ by fallout from ‘known-donor fertilisation’ arrangement between former friends. In A & B (Children) Mr Justice Cobb was dealing with a dispute concerning two girls who had been born through an informal sperm donation arrangement between a gay couple and a lesbian couple. The dispute began when the gay couple applied to have contact with the children, and has continued for some six years, involving more than thirty court orders and running up more than half a million pounds in legal costs. Mr Justice Cobb said that the litigation had become as ‘bruising and distressing an experience’ for the parties as any family law litigation in which he had been involved, either as advocate or judge. Making a series of orders and saying he wanted the litigation to end, he observed: “I fear that the childhoods of A and B have been irredeemably marred by the on-going court conflict.” He added: “The case illustrates all too clearly the immense difficulties which can be unleashed when families are created by known-donor fertilisation. The litigation has had a destructive effect on the parties.”

Adoptive parents across the country have received a personal letter of thanks from the Children and Families Minister, Edward Timpson, ‘for their love and commitment in caring for some of the country’s most vulnerable children’. Writing to adopters during National Adoption Week, the minister paid tribute to ‘the endless dedication and compassion shown by adoptive parents in caring for their children, while setting out the support available to them every step of the way’. The minister’s letter follows a record high in the number of adoptions over the last 12 months, resulting in more than 5,000 children placed in new homes – an increase of 25% on the previous year.

And finally, the Department for Work and Pensions has announced that, subject to Parliamentary approval, from March 2015 the Child Maintenance Service and Child Support Agency will begin sharing certain information about the payment records of their clients with credit reference agencies. This means that arrears built up in maintenance payments will have the same effect on people’s credit score as other debts. Principally, information will be shared about an individual when a liability order is made against them, but it is also expected that the introduction of the new measure will have a deterrent effect on those who may otherwise choose to evade maintenance payments.