Online dispute resolution and DNA paternity tests: The last week in family law

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (‘ONS’) show that an estimated 1.4 million women and 700,000 men have suffered domestic abuse in the last year, despite a long-term decline in violent crime generally. The ONS data also reveals a link between poverty and domestic abuse, with women living in the poorest households more than three times more likely to be victims than those in higher income families. According to the ONS, 4.9 million women, or 28%, and 2.4 million men, or nearly 15%, have experienced some form of domestic abuse since the age of 16.

The Online Dispute Resolution Advisory Group of the Civil Justice Council has published a report, in which it recommends the establishment of an Internet-based court service, to be known as ‘HM Online Court’ (‘HMOC’). The Group’s terms of reference were restricted to civil claims under the value of £25,000, but they state that they believe that HMOC should also be extended to ‘suitable family disputes’.  The Group recommend that HMOC should be a three-tier service, comprising ‘Online Evaluation’, which is essentially an information service, ‘Online Facilitation’ (basically mediation) and ‘Online Judges’, who will decide the cases online, largely on the basis of papers submitted to them electronically.

Justice Minister Simon Hughes has announced that from September all family court judges in England will be able to order DNA tests to determine a child’s parentage. This follows two pilot schemes in Taunton and Bristol which were set up following anecdotal evidence that courtroom arguments led to delays in divorce cases, particularly where parentage was in question. Findings from the pilots suggest the tests mean judges could be more confident when making decisions about children and, most importantly, parents would be more likely to follow the court’s orders. The cost of the tests will be provided from public funding. Mr Hughes said: “I am determined that all cases involving children should be resolved quickly and wherever possible outside court. However when they do come to court they should be resolved in a civilised way so that children don’t suffer. Unambiguous and conclusive DNA tests will prove parentage and help to end acrimonious and embarrassing court battles.”

The President of the Family Division Sir James Munby has criticised senior managers at a local authority over the way they handled a case involving a toddler who had been placed in foster care at birth because of the father’s links to the English Defence League. Sir James was “very critical” of Darlington Borough Council’s analysis, handling of the case and its conduct of the litigation, and said that the approach taken by the council had been almost a textbook example of how not to pursue a care case. The 13-month-old boy’s father, who is in his mid-20s, had wanted to look after him, but social services staff said he should be adopted. Sir James dismissed the adoption application and ordered that the boy be returned to his father.

And finally, Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (‘FDACs’), which help parents deal with drug or alcohol addiction so they can keep their children, are to be opened in more areas of England. There has been a FDAC in London for seven years, and courts have opened more recently in Gloucestershire and Milton Keynes. More will now open in areas including East Sussex, Kent and Medway, Plymouth, Torbay and Exeter, and West Yorkshire. Many families which come into care proceedings have at least one parent with a drink or drug problem. Unlike the traditional family court, the FDAC has its own team of experts and doctors, and parents come up before the court every fortnight, seeing the same judge every time. An evaluation last year of the London FDAC found that 35% of mothers managed to kick their addictions, so their children could be returned safely to them, compared with 19% of mothers who go through ordinary family courts.