It’s Resolution’s National Dispute Resolution Week, and this year the focus is on putting children first during family breakdown. We thought we’d take a look at some of the key findings from the research they have commissioned on how families are dealing with divorce and separation today, and think about the best ways to protect and support children through the process.

For the uninitiated, Resolution is an organisation of 6,500 family lawyers and other professionals in England and Wales who believe in a constructive, non-confrontational approach to family law matters. Resolution also campaigns for improvements to the family justice system. All of us at CFLP are Resolution members, and are proud to support their initiatives and campaigns. We are not just members but are actively involved: Adam is currently the Chair of the local Resolution group in Cambridge and West Suffolk, with Tricia as its Treasurer; Simon chairs the national Resolution Children Committee, and both Gail and Sue have been involved at the upper levels of the organisation at various points in the past.

Resolution commissioned a poll of young people aged 14-22 with experience of parental separation. On the plus side, half of all the young people surveyed agreed that their parents put their needs first during their separation or divorce. Although of course we would like this to be higher, this figure indicates that the message about positive parenting during these difficult times is getting through, at least to half of parents.

The survey also reports that 62% of the young people indicated that their parents did not include them in the decision-making process about their separation or divorce. Consulting children without putting any decision-making burden on them is of course a difficult balance to strike, as shown by the 88% of those surveyed who said it is important to make sure children do not feel like they have to choose between their parents. Most experts agree that giving children age-appropriate and relevant information during the process of divorce, and trying to look at the situation from each child’s individual point of view to assess what they need most, and how best to support them, makes all the difference to the way that children experience divorce and separation.

The results of the survey support the main advice Resolution shares in its Parenting Charter, which sets out what children should be able to expect from their parents during a divorce. We’re particularly proud of The Charter as the Children Committee, with Simon at the helm, brought it together. You can download a copy here . It promotes children’s rights to:

  • be at the centre of any decisions made about their lives
  • feel and be loved and cared for by both parents
  • know and have contact with both sides of their families, including any siblings who may not live with them, as long as they are safe
  • a childhood, including freedom from the pressures of adult concerns such as financial worries

Yesterday, our Simon and other senior members of Resolution went to Parliament to call for the Government to share the Charter with all divorcing parents. The event also saw the launch of a central online advice guide developed by Resolution to help divorcing parents manage their relationship with their children and with each other during separation. It was hosted by Caroline Nokes MP and was well-attended by members of parliament and parliamentary workers.

Resolution chair Jo Edwards asked MPs and influencers to support the Resolution ethos and work with the organization to reduce the impact of divorce conflict on children by supporting out of court dispute resolution and introducing no fault divorce. In response, family Justice Minister Caroline Dinenage MP spoke about her commitment to promoting lower-conflict options for divorcing couples and the need to facilitate the inclusion of children in the divorce process. As we write this, the Chancellor is about to reveal his spending review. We are realistic about the prospect of an injection of funding into family justice to support the Minister’s stated aspirations, but at least the will appears to be there, and that’s a start.

The main thing to remember for parents entering the process of family breakdown is that there are choices available to you that will protect your children. If it’s possible to do so, keeping matters out of court is one way that is almost guaranteed to shelter them from additional stress. We’re not saying that any of it is easy, but we can tell you that it is worth it in the long run with the aim of raising happy, healthy, well-adjusted children all the way to adulthood, to their own families and beyond. If you’d like us to advise and support you during the process of divorce or separation, please give us a call on 01223 443333 and make an appointment to see Adam, Tricia, Gail, Sue or Simon.


New ideas for families

The family law reports are again filled with well-heeled international former couples where the wife is alleging that the husband has hidden money from her and the court. Interesting though these cases often are, we have seen quite a few of them recently, and thought that instead we would turn our attention back to wider social and family justice policy for this week’s blog. What’s life like for separating couples at the other end of the financial spectrum at the moment?

While family lawyers in Cambridge and nationwide look forward to Resolution’s National Dispute Resolution Week next week, Jane Robey, chair of national not-for-profit mediation providers National Family Mediation, has written a short article in our professional journal focusing on what family justice can expect from the government’s upcoming spending review.

She laments the lack of additional funds from central government to publicise mediation and continue the good profile-raising work that was done at the beginning of the year, at a time when the courts are increasingly desperate for prospective litigants to find other ways of resolving their disputes. She also observes that family mediation does not appear to be high on the priority list of the new Minister for Family Justice, as it was for her predecessor. So far, so disappointing. However, Jane’s suggestion that the government look to the Sure Start model for inspiration on how to solve the crisis in family justice is an interesting one, and one that deserves closer inspection.

Sure Start centres are based in communities and offer families a one-stop-shop for support including advice on parenting, local childcare options, child and family health services, and links to the local Jobcentre and training. Jane suggests that these effectively be extended further to become ‘family hubs’ and include access to financial advice, relationship support and advice on separation among other things to ensure that those without knowledge of what to do when things go wrong, or the resources to find out, can get help. She argues that it would be essential to have patience with the results of such an initiative, and take a long-term view of return on investment, while observing that patience is a virtue currently in short supply.

This is a good idea. It would target support where it is needed most: to families with young children, and have a good chance at getting in early to help protect them from the worst of the effects of parental separation. Happily, members of our profession will have the opportunity to discuss this idea, and others, at a reception next week in Parliament hosted by Resolution and attended by the Minister for Family Justice, Caroline Dineage MP. New Chair of Cambridge & West Suffolk Resolution Adam Moghadas attended last year, and this year we are sending our Chair of Resolution’s Children Committee, Simon Bethel, to carry the CFLP flag and make our views known.

The contrast between reported divorce cases and the ordinary experience of family breakdown has arguably never been greater. This presents a significant challenge both to the courts and to the rest of us involved in family justice.

Spreading the word about alternatives to court is something we do willingly and often, but we do this in the face of a media where ‘divorce battles’ are expected and championed even where the heartbroken couple involved have small children caught in the crossfire. We all have a responsibility to demand more sensitive media coverage of family breakdown, better information for those involved, and access to methods of dispute resolution for all.

We will bring you a report on the parliamentary meeting next week, at a time when it is hoped you will also see members of Resolution from all over England and Wales taking to the airways, social media, and traditional media, to focus on a better future for children by keeping family disputes out of court. National DR week is a chance for us to tell the real story about the options for families in distress, and we will grab it with both hands.

In the meantime, if there’s any aspect of family law you would like to discuss, please do call Gail, Simon, Adam, Tricia or Sue on 01223 443333 to make an appointment.


Protecting children’s privacy

As Resolution lawyers and responsible human beings, our focus at CFLP is to encourage the parents who come to see us to protect their children during separation and divorce. We believe in putting children’s interests first throughout the process. We aren’t big fans of litigating over children and do what we can to encourage our clients to avoid it wherever possible; sadly, it isn’t always possible to do so, and if it isn’t, we do our best to lessen the impact.

As the family courts open up to scrutiny in more ways, the dangers of court proceedings for children become more complex. It’s not just the stress on the adults, the damage to the possibility of future friendship and the outcome of an imposed solution that may be difficult in practical terms, it’s also the possibility – even likelihood in some cases – of the court case being reported, put on the internet, and the details of one’s difficulties being available for all to see, albeit usually on an anonymised basis.

We were interested to read that Dr Julia Brophy, a respected academic, is currently conducting research on children involved in the family courts, and their confidentiality. She has just published another stage of her research, in conjunction with the Association of Lawyers for Children and the National Youth Advocacy Service, which examines how successfully reported legal cases relating to children are anonymised.

The aim of the process of making the judgments anonymous is to show how the family courts reach their decisions while protecting the individual children who are involved. This is why family court judgments often use letters in their titles, eg “X v Y County Council and Z”, rather than the names of the people and organisations involved. It’s fair to say that although this research focused on public law proceedings and judgments – i.e. those where a local authority is applying to take children into care – it has implications throughout family law, as judgments may be published in financial or private children cases too.

The researcher asked a group of young people aged between 17 and 25, many of whom had themselves been involved in family court proceedings and all of whom have excellent internet skills, to analyse randomly selected court judgments that are on Bailii, a free internet case law resource. They were asked to see if they were able to identify children involved from the details revealed in the apparently anonymised judgments.

In many cases they could. The results indicate that there are serious difficulties in effectively anonymising judgments. The internet has made it easier to piece together different bits of information and work out which family, and which child, the judgment relates to. The young people identified certain types of information, for example, the geographical location of families, children’s ages and dates of birth, details of instances of abuse, or parents’ health problems which, when pieced together, make children vulnerable to identification. In addition, they found newspaper reports of incidents referred to in judgments, and parents and other family or friends posting information about children and court cases on social networking sites, that helped them to identify the children involved.

The research is very worrying. It suggests that in many cases there is a real risk of ‘jigsaw identification’, which means the process of anonymisation is not sufficiently protecting children’s privacy and requires an urgent review. In particular, those with some local geographical knowledge can be alerted to a family’s difficulty even by the name of the local authority or court, and tracing back to a particular child from there gets easier the more details revealed in the judgment.

The young people analysing the judgments were shocked by their detailed contents, finding that ‘judgments contained difficult, deeply embarrassing, shaming and damaging information about children’s lives; that such information was effectively already in the public arena was distressing – many felt let down.’ Indeed, they made the point that it felt like judges were unaware that sensitive details, for example of abuse or parental neglect, can “go viral at the click of a button”, and be used in ways not intended or perhaps understood by the judge.

The report’s author makes the two fundamental points that

  • “It is fair to say that in endeavours to protect the reputation of family courts by encouraging judges to place judgments on Bailii, the views of young people and others about the content of judgments was not sought.
  • Ministers supporting changes in this field in general declared it was not the intimate content of cases that would be reported by the press, rather the process and issues of fairness and justice. That has yet to be demonstrated.”

The author presents recommendations for further research, consideration and guidance. She observed that the level of detail included in some family court reports is necessary to show that the judge has fully considered all of the evidence and to protect from a later appeal; but there is a tension here with protecting the child’s privacy and securing their future that urgently needs to be addressed.

Where it is difficult to agree children’s arrangements on divorce or separation, we recommend mediation or collaborative practice wherever possible. As we’ve previously discussed, keeping children’s issues away from court has so many advantages. One of the advantages is that your, and your children’s, privacy is protected. If you’ve got any queries about a children matter or any other aspect of family law and would like to speak to someone, give us a call on 01223 443334 and make an appointment with Adam, Tricia, Simon, Sue or Gail.

What the Courts Deal With

It is rare that the Family Court pleads for publicity, so when a judge decides to name a former couple involved in a financial hearing on divorce and says, “the public should be aware of the scale of problems that courts administering justice and implementing the rule of law have to face at the hands of unrepresented and malevolent litigants determined to do everything they can to destroy the process“, you know that this is an extreme case.

These two people  were married for 20 years before separation. As is so common in the family law reports these days, there are international aspects to the case. The husband’s business operated (or operates) in various countries around the world, and both the husband and wife have family and own property abroad. The wife’s estimates put the joint wealth at around £1.5m.

The critical factor in this couple’s divorce proceedings has been the husband’s “truly abysmal” conduct throughout. Examples of this given by the court in its final hearing judgment include the husband devising a bogus loan with his sister to defeat the wife’s claims, transferring many hundreds of thousands of pounds to the couple’s adult children also to put the money beyond the wife’s reach, selling the wife’s jewellery and giving away her possessions, stranding her in India, making her homeless, making threats to kill the wife and her lawyer, needing to be removed from the courtroom during hearings because of threatening behavior, being convicted of contempt of court, assaulting the wife and her lawyer, and fleeing abroad to avoid standing trial in the magistrates’ court. There is a warrant out for his arrest.

Finally, at the commencement of the final hearing, which he did not attend despite having been given dispensation to do so via videoconference or phone, he also sent abusive and threatening emails to the judge via his clerk.

Over the three years since the proceedings started, the court has dealt with 30 hearings including four fruitless appeals. The wife had incurred nearly £150,000 in costs – or would have done, had she not been supported by legal aid. The husband was unrepresented throughout.

The court had to value the assets available for sharing without any disclosure from the husband. Thankfully, some of the couple’s assets are English property, and the husband also has two pensions here. The court decided that it was reasonable to draw inferences about the husband’s true wealth from evidence about financial transfers to family members. This included a property bought by his sister and his son which the court found the husband had provided the money for and therefore, in essence, owned even though his name was not on the title. The court assessed that the husband had hidden at least half a million pounds in an attempt to stop the wife from having access to it.

The court awarded the wife half of the £1.5m it assessed as available. This meant that two properties would be transferred to her, subject to mortgage, and she would retain her own small place abroad. She would be able to sell the properties and buy a small mortgage-free house or flat for herself. She was also awarded 50% of her former husband’s pension. Thankfully, English properties and pensions are easy to enforce family court orders against, whether or not the husband plays ball. The court observed however that the wife also had a valid claim for maintenance, but had agreed to forego it in the knowledge that any order for periodical payments would be a struggle to enforce. The order will be in full and final settlement of all claims on divorce, and she will be able to move on independently.

As for the husband, the court dismissed the medical ‘certificate’ he had sent from a doctor in Romania, on which he had based his allegations of a life-threatening illness and his demand for an unlimited adjournment of the final hearing. It is clear from previous court decisions that in order to be effective, a medical report must be far more detailed than that which he supplied.

The court imposed a civil restraint order on the husband which will prevent him from making any applications to court (including sending emails to court) for two years. In order to apply for permission to make an application during that period, he will have to come to the court counter as an email application is not open to him.

Because of his disgraceful behaviour in the litigation, the husband was ordered to pay the wife’s costs of nearly £150,000. These were secured against the final English property, and the judge ordered that it be sold to fulfill the Order. Finally, the judge directed that the husband’s emails to court should be sent to the police for them to investigate possible criminal offences.

We have three main observations about this sad and disturbing case. The first is that the court has come down hard on the abusive husband. The wife can be fairly sure that he won’t make any more court applications as he can only do so by coming to the court, where he would be likely to be arrested for his earlier offences. Due in part to the costs award, the husband has lost nearly all his UK assets – apart from half of his pension – and the wife has been awarded them because she needs them for her future. The message here is that the court will find a way to stop the bad guys from winning, and won’t shy away from making inferences and awarding costs if that’s the appropriate thing to do.

The second observation is that had this case commenced in April 2013 instead of six months earlier, it might not have come to court at all as the wife may well not have been able to access legal aid. Since that date, only a small number of litigants have been entitled to legal aid for family law advice and representation. In the face of such abuse from the husband, and a strict test to achieve legal aid on domestic violence grounds, which she might not have met, might she have given up instead? How many do, and live in poverty, without access to courts?

Finally, the point made by Mostyn J in his decision to publicise this case is that sadly it is not an isolated one. The courts see this sort of thing frequently. He wanted to highlight the difficulties of administering family justice in these cases, and the impact they have on scarce court resources. We are happy to share the story so that the context of the court’s work can be better understood. If you have any queries about any aspect of this case or any other family law matter, please call 01223 443333 to make an appointment with Gail, Sue, Adam, Tricia or Simon.