Weekly Family Law Update June 14, 2021

New-born babies and no-fault divorce

Rise in new-born babies subject to care proceedings

A new research study commissioned by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory has revealed a significant increase in the number of new-born babies (i.e. babies under two weeks old) in England and Wales who are subject to care proceedings.

The research found that in England the number of new-born babies in care proceedings increased by 20 per cent between 2012/13 and 2019/20, rising from 2,425 to 2,914 per year. And in Wales it rose by 40 per cent from 145 to 203 babies per year over the same period.

The number of new-born babies in care proceedings has also increased when measured as an incidence rate (that is, the number of new-born cases per 10,000 live births in England and Wales). In 2019/20, 48 new-born babies per 10,000 live births were subject to care proceedings in England, up from 35 per 10,000 in 2012/13. In Wales, the rate is even higher – 68 per 10,000 live births in 2019/20, up from 41 in 2012/13.

The research also showed that in the majority of cases involving new-born babies parents are given very little formal notice that care proceedings have been issued and the case is to be heard in court, which may result in the baby being removed from their care.

In the last year, more than four out of every five cases in England, and three quarters of cases in Wales, were heard with less than seven days’ formal notice. One in every six mothers faced care proceedings issued and heard on the same day.

Lisa Harker, director of Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, commented:

“The separation of a mother and baby is deeply traumatic for all involved and has lifelong implications. Although in some cases urgent action following the birth of a new baby can be necessary where there is an immediate safeguarding need, there is widespread concern that the volume of these cases is increasing. Not only does it seem that chances are being missed to work with vulnerable mothers much earlier to give them the best chance of staying together as a family, but when that is not possible, the process is often not being managed in a sensitive or humane way.”

No-fault divorce delay

The Government has announced that the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020, which will bring in a system of no-fault divorce, will come into force on the 6th of April 2022. It had previously been expected that the Act would come into force this autumn.

In an answer to a parliamentary question upon the implementation of the Act Chris Philp MP explained on behalf of the Government that the original implementation timetable had been ambitious and that the necessary changes to the Courts Service’s online divorce system would not be completed before the end of the year.

He went on: “The Government recognises the need for clarity on when these important reforms will come into force. This will now be on the common commencement date of 6 April 2022. While this delay is unfortunate it is essential that we take the time to get this right.”

Responding to the announcement, Nigel Shepherd, the former Chair of the family lawyers group Resolution, said: “Whilst any delay is disappointing, we do now have certainty over the introduction of this important reform, and will be able to advise clients accordingly.

“Our members’ experience of using online forms and processes has not been universally positive, and so it is essential that the IT is fit for purpose in order to ensure the new divorce process works the way it is intended. The delay will also allow practitioners to become acquainted with the new rules in good time before the Act comes into force.

“We have met with the Ministry of Justice on a regular basis, including the day of this announcement, and have received assurances that the Government remains fully committed to bringing the Act into force. We will continue to work closely with them as the date for implementation approaches – we will be seeking concrete assurances at every opportunity that this new date will be met, and will keep members informed of progress and new developments.”