Mediation, marriage certificates and legal aid: The last week in family law

The Family Mediation Task Force has published a report setting out its first set of recommendations on what more can be done to increase the uptake of family mediation. The recommendations include that the Ministry of Justice should undertake a campaign to increase awareness of mediation and that the Ministry should consider paying for all Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings for a period of twelve months. The Task Force also join all those who have urged the government now to abolish fault based divorce.

Mothers’ names could be included on marriage certificates in England and Wales, under plans being considered by the Home Office. Presently, there is no legal requirement or space on the certificate for mothers’ names – the certificates only require the names and occupations of the fathers of the bride and groom. However, more than one hundred MPs from all parties are calling for the “offensive and outdated” law to be changed so that women are not written out of history.

Citizens Advice Bureaux has reported that nine out of ten of its offices are finding it difficult to refer people to the specialist legal advice they need since the cuts to legal aid came into effect last year. The charity says it is now extremely hard to get legal aid around issues such as housing, relationship breakdown or employment disputes. Where limited provision of legal aid remains people have to meet very stringent criteria. The length of time it takes to get legal aid means people’s situations often become far worse than they would have had there been earlier intervention. In some cases legal aid is now simply not available, such as private law children disputes. Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Gillian Guy has shared this evidence with the House of Commons Justice Select Committee inquiry into the impact of changes to civil legal aid. Guy called for a Government strategy on funding of advice, to ensure that people can access the right level of advice, at the right time, in the right way for them.

The Select Committee has also been warned by Law Society deputy vice-president Andrew Caplen, Bar Council chair Nicholas Lavender QC and Jenny Beck, co-chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group of the dangers of untrained, uninsured and unregulated professional McKenzie friends, who have emerged to fill the gap as people are left without access to proper legal advice and representation. Beck told the committee that McKenzie friends give only the ‘illusion of equality of arms’ while Lavender said judges need to be stricter in not allowing paid McKenzie friends to speak in court. MPs expressed concern at the growing phenomenon, with Conservative MP Steve Brine calling it the ‘cult of the amateur’ and Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn saying that it is a ‘dangerous scenario’.

And finally, the High Court has rejected a move by hedge fund tycoon Sir Christopher Hohn to prevent the media from publishing details from hearings relating to the financial settlement following his divorce. In a test case that significantly expands the media’s ability to report on matrimonial hearings, Mrs Justice Roberts has permitted everything conducted in a private hearing to be published for the first time, save for financial information relating to the couple’s personal or business affairs. Those financial matters that have already been published can be re-reported. Jamie-Cooper Hohn, the American wife of Sir Christopher, is seeking hundreds of millions of pounds in what could be the largest divorce award ever made by a British court.