Weekly Family Law Update July 12, 2021

Remote hearings, domestic abuse and child maintenance

Remote hearings may impede justice, warns Law Society

Access to justice must be the principle consideration when deciding if remote hearings in family courts are appropriate, the Law Society of England and Wales has warned, in its response to a consultation by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory on family justice recovery plans following the pandemic.

Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said:

“Remote hearings have generally found a suitable place in the family justice system and the Court of Protection. In some instances, they have removed family tensions, made emergency hearings simpler to attend and been more convenient and efficient for advocates, parties and judges.

“However, the biggest factor in deciding whether a hearing should be remote or in person must be any potential impediment to access to justice. If parties feel they can’t fully participate and understand what’s happening, in-person hearings should be the default format.”

She went on:

“Parties who lack the appropriate technology (such as good WiFi or relevant hardware), aren’t technologically literate or who need an intermediary or translator may struggle to feel fully involved in remote hearings. This is particularly relevant to public law proceedings.

“Some litigants in person – parties without legal representation – are also struggling with remote hearings, especially when they are complex. This causes difficulties in accessing justice and being able to fully participate, which also causes delays to hearings.”

New report claims family court system “retraumatises victims”

The Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs is calling for urgent long-term funding and more dedicated specialist court support after a new report revealed that 89 per cent of domestic abuse survivors don’t get any support when they go through the family courts.

Ms Jacobs said it was time that Independent Domestic Abuse Advisors (IDVAs), who support and guide domestic abuse victims through the justice system, were seen as being an integral part of the family courts and criminal justice system, and that all survivors going through the system should, if they wish, be able to access IDVA support.

The report showed that many survivors currently feel retraumatised by the court process.

One survivor told researchers: “The Family Court process has left me severely traumatised, worse than the DV (domestic violence) itself.  I was belittled, undermined, exposed to my abusive ex repeatedly, my children were not listened to and it felt like father’s rights trumped mine and negated his history of DV.  I’ve never been more frightened and alone in my life.”

Ms Jacobs commented: “I am extremely concerned that so few victims who are going through the family courts are getting any support at all. The kind of cases that go through the family courts are often highly emotional and usually linked to child custody cases. This must change as a matter of urgency.”

Gingerbread calls on the Government to scrap unfair child maintenance fees

Gingerbread, the charity for single parent families, is calling on the Department for Work and Pensions to scrap what it calls ‘unfair child maintenance fees’. These fees are taken by the Child Maintenance Service (‘CMS’) from money owed to children by their non-resident parent.

Gingerbread says that the call comes as new figures “show that the CMS continues to fail in its duty with a shocking £408.3 million in arrears now owed to children across Great Britain.”

The figures also show that in cases where the CMS is supposed to collect the maintenance 100,900 children are not receiving the maintenance owed to them, 28% of parents (42,000) are not paying any of the child maintenance they owe, and since December 2020 overall arrears owed to children have increased by £12.5 million.

Victoria Benson Chief Executive of Gingerbread commented:

“It is a child’s legal right to be supported by both parents, and the Child Maintenance Service was established to help to enforce this right. Yet the very service designed to protect this right is not only failing them but charging them, too. While it’s right that the government should collect maintenance on behalf of children where it is not willingly paid, it is incredibly unfair that fees are deducted from this money before it is passed on.

“Children are going without as a result of these fees being deducted and it simply cannot be right that a government service is responsible for this.”