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Hints, hails and trails … but little delivery on family law policy change

Oct 30, 2019, 10:26 AM
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So… the Parliamentary Bill aimed at reforming divorce laws is back on the table. Hurrah.

That means change is imminent, right? Hang on. No, it doesn’t. And the omens are not positive.

Two things jump to mind: at the time of writing the Bill has had its first reading the House of Lords, with its next consideration by Peers yet to be scheduled. Then it will need to go back to MPs in the House of Commons. That won’t happen overnight.

The second reason for caution is the looming general election. Now, I believe there is growing consensus and momentum for no-fault divorce, so I’m not suggesting an election would necessarily jeopardise long-overdue reform. But these days only a fool predicts politics! Who knows what impact the make-up of a new intake of MPs - possibly combined with a new government keen to promote different priorities in limited Parliamentary time - might have.

Make no mistake, those of us who have long campaigned for no-fault divorce had better bed in for that campaign to continue for some time yet.

Family mediators and those working in other areas of family law have got used to frustrating waits for policy change.

Reviews and consultations have been and gone, with precious little practical change. And those that have been implemented – LASPO – for example, have had devastating consequences for family mediators, as month on month data has demonstrated since it came into effect.

Measures to improve families’ access to justice have been hinted, hailed and trailed – but rarely delivered.

I wonder if the latest example has just passed us by, with the review of the Child Arrangements Programme, outlining processes during disputes between separated parents about arrangements for children.

The publication of the review paper in June 2019 was most welcome, providing another opportunity to improve take-up of mediation. As you would expect, NFM mediators were keen to give views on the consultation, and these were incorporated into our response. Space prohibits me from detailing this here, but I believe our views about revitalising attendance at the Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM) and at the Separated Parents’ Information Programme are well-articulated in that paper, and in previous responses we have issued elsewhere.

In relation specifically to MIAM, the most effective way of increasing attendance would be for the President to work closely with the judiciary to encourage them to make use of their existing powers under Section 11a of the Children Act 1989 - to adjourn cases for MIAM attendance as a contact activity.

Mediators and separating couples would then have greater access to each other, which would not only boost MIAM take-up - it would convert people to undertaking full mediation, and they would then reap the many benefits the process can bring.

The beauty of this simple, cost-neutral shift would that no new procedures or paperwork is required: it would just use what is already in place more effectively.

Like other family law practitioners, National Family Mediation professionals will await the outcome of the CAP consultation with keen interest … but I suspect with little optimism. 

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