Family Law on Trial – a case of the system’s failure to protect children from harm?
By Rebecca Giraud and Bob Greig
OnlyMums & OnlyDads is an on-line organisation that works with parents going through divorce and separation.
Parents often don’t know where to go for help when it comes to working things out with the ex. We all know that there is a wealth of half-baked information on the internet being provided by so called ‘experts’. We offer something different.
Our organisation offers parents access to the best professional guidance available through our Panel of 120 Resolution-member solicitors and mediators. This gives parents the opportunity to seek some initial, objective, and professional guidance on their options for taking matters forward in a way that keeps the best interests of their children at the forefront of their decision making.
We are not lawyers, or social workers. We have never worked in a court or in the civil service. We have, however, spent 10 years listening to parents – mums and dads – and the difficulties they are facing.
There is one issue that comes up daily and that is the ‘delays in the system’. It is our contention that these delays can drive already warring parents further apart and more importantly place children at risk of harm.
The “denial of contact” resulting from the delays in the system is pernicious. The detrimental impact on the non-resident parent will be known to those in this room. The negative impacts on the children being denied contact with one of their parents may be less well documented.
What we hear is that if a resident parent decides they simply don’t want the other parent to see the children, without there being any safety issues, it will take the non-resident parent 4, 5, maybe 6 months to get a court order enabling them to see their children again, if by that stage it is not already too late. In too many cases, this pattern of – contact stopped, mediation, followed by court hearings, contact re-established only to be broken again a few months down the line – can be repeated year after year and results in whole childhoods blighted by irregular ad-hoc stressful contact with a loving parent.
Our question today is this. Where there is no “evidence” of the non resident parent being a risk to their child, why can’t the courts – “the system” – order the re-establishment of contact within a matter of days?
Equally, where a relationship breaks up and one of the parents gets involved with a violent partner, in what way can the system be changed to recognise and deal with that risk? In this situation the court needs to respond quickly to protect the child. As we heard last year from Polly Neate, the then CEO of Women’s Aid, too many children experience domestic violence in the UK. As a parents’ organisation we simply don’t understand why, when one parent sounds the alarm bell, it takes the system months or even years– or a violent incident – before facts are established and action taken.
Should you leave this event and trip over outside and hurt your arm you would end up at a doctors. They deliver a triage system to assess what needs doing, They would undertake an initial assessment and if a break was suspected you would be directed to a casualty department. There (within hours) you would be examined by a specialist. There would be investigations. Medical history, X-rays, possibly a scan. Bespoke treatment would be offered. Within a day you would be sorted.
I know the comparison doesn’t fit neatly- but let’s say you leave this room to go and pick up your children only to receive a text saying you are not going to see them this week and indeed not until further notice.
You might turn up at a family court with legitimate concerns about your child’s welfare and there will be immediate confusion as to who you would need to talk to. You may be offered booklets and a form or two. Weeks later you would find yourself attending a MIAM. If that doesn’t work you will find yourself back at the Court picking up a C100 form to fill in. That’s 20 pages to fill out and a six page checklist.
Once completed you will need to photocopy it three times and pay over £200 to again wait weeks for a court appointment…need I go on.
We are NOT calling for radical change. Rather we are asking for the 1989 Children Act to be fully implemented to do what it sought to achieve. To do this we need to zoom in on how to keep the welfare of the child paramount.
We have two questions which look at process rather than the wording of the legislation per se:
- Can we improve the court’s initial risk assessment and preliminary hearing systems – there are many anecdotal case studies that suggest they are not robust enough or quick enough, and
- Are the courts consistent in their appreciation of what “harms” children?
We took these questions to our Chair, Norman Hartnell, MD of The Family Law Co and Chairman of our Steering Group.