Surrogacy, online divorce and grandparents: The last week in family law

The Nuffield Foundation is to launch a ‘Family Justice Observatory’, a research hub that “will support the best possible decisions for children by improving the use of data and research evidence in the family justice system in England and Wales.” The Foundation has appointed a team led by Professor Karen Broadhurst at Lancaster University to deliver the 12-month development phase of the Observatory, during which time Professor Broadhurst’s team will build the infrastructure of the Observatory and advise the Foundation on the best operating model for the Observatory’s 4-5 year delivery phase, to begin in spring 2019. The Chief Executive of the Nuffield Foundation Tim Gardam said: “The Nuffield Foundation is one of the principal funders of family justice research and has been keen to take a lead on addressing the need to make better use of research findings and administrative data in family justice decision-making. We will work closely with Professor Broadhurst and the development team to ensure the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory delivers on its promise to improve outcomes for children in the family justice system.”

The government’s programme to modernise the courts will entail the loss of about 6,500 courthouse and backroom jobs, along with the closure of yet more courts, it has emerged. The 6,500 job losses will be spread over the period from 2016, when the programme was launched, to 2022, by which time the total workforce of the courts service will number about 10,000. The shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, said: “More staff cuts and court closures are yet another consequence of the government’s reckless decision to impose on the Ministry of Justice the deepest cuts of any department. The government should halt all further cuts and closures, at least until it has published its long awaited courts bill so that its worrying plans for the future of our courts system can be properly debated.”

The Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission have started work on a review of the laws around surrogacy, after Government funding was agreed. The Commissions have identified three potential areas of concern: difficulties with parental orders, which transfer parentage from the surrogate mother to the intended parents; international surrogacy, where there are concerns about exploitation of surrogates; and how surrogacy is regulated. Law Commissioner for England and Wales Professor Nick Hopkins said: “Our society has moved on from when surrogacy laws were first introduced 30 years ago and, now, they are not fit for purpose. For many, having a child is the best day of their lives and surrogacy can be the only option for some who want a genetic link to the baby. But the issues are difficult and there is no quick fix. Now we want all those with an interest to get involved and help us make the law fit for the modern world.”

A fully digital divorce application process has now been launched to the public. The online service offers prompts and guidance to assist people in completing their application, and uses clear, non-technical language. The whole process can be completed online, including payment and uploading supporting evidence. Justice Minister Lucy Frazer, said: “Allowing divorce applications to be made online will help make sure we are best supporting people going through an often difficult and painful time. More people will have the option of moving from paper-based processes to online systems which will cut waste, speed up services which can be safely expedited, and otherwise better fit with modern day life.”

And finally, MPs have been debating how to make it easier for grandparents to secure contact with their grandchildren. In a debate in the House of Commons on the 2nd of May Nigel Huddleston MP put forward two suggestions as to how the law might be reformed to help grandparents. Firstly, he suggested that the requirement for grandparents to obtain the leave of the court before proceeding with an application for contact should be removed. Secondly, he proposed that the court should presume, unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of grandparents in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare. A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The welfare of a child is the primary consideration for the family courts and steps are taken wherever possible to reduce the impact of family conflict on children when relationships end. We will consider any proposals for helping children maintain involvement with grandparents, together with other potential reforms to the family justice system, which are currently being looked at.”