Reform, contact and refuges: The last week in family law

The Supreme Court has refused permission for the parents of Alfie Evans, the 22 month-old boy who has a degenerative neurological condition, to appeal to the Court against the decision that the NHS Trust may withdraw life-support from Alfie. A panel of Supreme Court justices headed by the President Lady Hale found that the proposed appeal was unarguable. Accordingly, and notwithstanding their “profound sympathy for the agonising situation in which they find themselves”, they refused Alfie’s parents permission to appeal. Alfie’s parents have now taken their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Division, has called for a number of reforms to the family justice system, in a speech to the Law School at the University of Edinburgh. He said that family courts should become ‘problem-solving’ courts, dealing with the underlying issues behind the disputes that they deal with. He also set out which parts of family law he considered were most pressingly in need of statutory reform. These included giving property rights to cohabitants, introducing no-fault divorce, reforming the law relating to financial remedies on divorce, and giving judges the power to prevent the cross-examination in person by alleged perpetrators of domestic violence of their alleged victims.

Meanwhile, in a speech to the NAGALRO annual conference, Lord Justice McFarlane has looked at the issue of contact, both in relation to contact with adopted children by members of their natural family, and in relation to private law contact disputes between parents. With regard to adoption contact he pointed out that “in a world where Facebook, Snapchat, email and Google are second nature to all youngsters, the ability of adopted families to prevent or even monitor any contact between their child and her natural family is very limited indeed.” He suggested that the old model whereby there was little or no contact might change, and be replaced by an approach that was more flexible and case-specific. With regard to private law contact disputes, he emphasised the need to recognise and address potentially intractable cases at a very early stage, and asked whether the judiciary should explain to parents at the outset of cases what ‘normal contact’ looks like, in order to make parents re-think their expectations, and therefore make it more likely that cases will be resolved by agreement.

Council funding for women’s refuges across England, Scotland and Wales has been cut in real terms by nearly £7 million since 2010, according to figures obtained by The Guardian newspaper. Of the 178 authorities that responded to the Guardian’s request for information, 117 (65%) had cut funding in real terms since 2010, amounting to an average fall for each of £38,000, or £6.8 million in total. The fall in financial support comes as the government is planning to remove refuges from the welfare system. Instead of using housing benefit to fund refuges, the government is proposing to give a “ring-fenced” grant to councils for short-term supported housing. Commenting on the Guardian’s findings, Katie Ghose, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “Our network of life-saving refuges have been forced to provide more for less, doing extraordinary work on uncertain and short-term shoestring budgets. However, the government’s planned changes to the way that refuges will be funded will be the breaking point. The government’s plans will remove refuges’ last secure form of funding – housing benefit – and devolve housing costs to local authorities to ‘fund services that meet the needs of their local areas’.” She called upon the government to give a “cast-iron guarantee” that its proposed changes to funding would be dropped.

And finally, three barristers have been told off for “regularly interrupting” each other during a family court trial. The barristers were representing two separated parents and their child at an appeal over living arrangements. Mr Justice MacDonald said it was clear why the father had described it as a “shouting match”, and reprimanded the barristers, saying it “does not assist the court”. He added: “In this case, the reception by the court of properly sequenced submissions was rendered extremely difficult by a concerning tendency on the part of the advocates simply to interrupt each other in an effort to advance their competing submissions. It should go without saying that this mode of advocacy does not assist the court and is to be deprecated.”