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

Data disclosed by the Ministry of Justice under a freedom of information request has revealed that family courts referred just 713 parties to publicly funded mediation in 2013/14. Court referrals accounted for just over 2 per cent of the 30,245 publicly funded Mediation Information & Assessment Meetings (‘MIAMs’) that took place during that period. The data will come as another blow to ministers, given that family mediation is being held up by government as the publicly funded alternative to litigation, following the abolition of legal aid for most private law family matters last year.
Mrs Justice Eleanor King has been appointed to the Court of Appeal. The appointment will take effect from this autumn, when she will become the eighth woman of thirty-eight judges in the Court of Appeal. Mrs Justice King was appointed a High Court judge in the Family Division in 2008 and has presided over a number of important family law cases.
Leading charities have warned that domestic violence refuges are being closed across the country in a crisis that is putting support for the most vulnerable women and children back 40 years. Specialist safe houses for women and children are being forced to shut by some local authorities because they do not take in male victims. In other areas, refuges are facing closure in favour of preventive work and support in the community, or being replaced with accommodation provided by housing associations. The threat comes from a competitive tendering process being adopted by local authorities, which charities say is weighted towards larger housing associations and businesses and ignores the lessons of four decades about the need to provide specialist, therapeutic support in refuges for women forced to flee for their lives.
Over 1,200 high street law firms offering legal aid family services could face a £100 million shortfall in fees as publicly funded cases work their way through the family justice system without replacement. The estimate was reached by divorce and separation service which analysed recently published Legal Aid Agency data to calculate that the Ministry of Justice is on course to reduce its spend on solicitors’ fees by over £100 million compared to 2012/13. Shared across the 1,208 law firms with a government contract for providing family law services, this represents a £90,000 ‘black hole’ that will need to be filled by a corresponding increase in private fees to stave off redundancies and maintain lawyer numbers.
The Foreign Office has warned expatriates living in the United Arab Emirates that they could face Sharia courts in divorce or child custody cases. The warning comes after a British mother lost custody of her son to her French ex-husband following a Sharia hearing. In February, Afsana Lachaux was given a suspended prison sentence in Dubai after being found guilty of kidnap charges for failing to attend an access meeting between her son and her ex-husband. Ms Lachaux claims she was scared, having been the victim of domestic abuse, which her former partner strongly denies. She told the BBC’s Asian Network that had she known Sharia law could be used by non-Muslims in court cases to decide divorce and child custody, she would not have moved to the UAE.
And finally, a High Court judge has criticised the Legal Aid Agency for resisting the grant of legal aid to cover the cost of an expert’s report that had been ordered by the court. In AB (A Child: Temporary Leave To Remove From Jurisdiction: Expert Evidence) the Agency had argued that the person chosen by the court was not an ‘expert’. However, Judge Bellamy said that it was for the court not the Agency to decide whether a particular witness was qualified to give expert evidence.