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Penny Booth: What seems to be 'in the family way' this week, then?

Date:19 SEP 2011

Penny BoothWell, as the new school year gets into its early weeks it did occur to me that the new schools provisions in ‘free schools' give a false sense of choice for parents. Real choice would come with being able to spend the money on the school of choice but our political masters have decided this is the best way to get families involved in schools. The best and most obvious way to get involved is to know what your child is doing in school, encourage their formal education and take part in parents' evenings. There may be welcome relief when the children go back to school, but our children would benefit from greater parental involvement in their education. Education, as they say, is too important to be left to the professionals. Education is what happens in the family, formal schooling helps it along and certificates it, but all that takes time and the ability to make a contribution. Parents should be given the opportunity to do this.

Mediation, just in case we had not noticed, involves a neutral third party facilitating resolutions to a conflict that parties may be able to live with in the future. This should now be available to all as a possible way forward rather than running to court to sort out family problems. A court resolution may be necessary, of course, but it is going to take more than a suggestion to change a mind-set; the change of mind is a change of approach to solving intimate issues which have legal implications when we are so accustomed to running to court to get our orders. I so often think nothing has changed for decades. I win, you lose. How long before mediation gets under our collective skin and we accept that responsibility for solutions in the family way lie with the individuals in that family?

Families and health care - it is interesting to consider what the rights of the next-of-kin are when older relatives go into hospital. I have commented before on the rights of the elderly, and have huge concerns about the welfare of older people in our society. Their health care should not be bottom of the pile. Like mediation, perhaps this needs to be embraced as part of the psyche of family life. Yes, individuals have rights, but right now, the rights of the elderly are not being protected and the only defence seems to be their families and their pressure groups.

It seems that intentions to give rights to unmarried couples will not now be going ahead and will not even become proposals for discussion in Parliament. The 2007 Law Commission report suggested giving rights to those couples with children or with relationships of 2-5 plus years duration, but the Justice Minister has announced that there is an insufficient basis for any change in the law. I would not be blaming the lack of evidence from the Scottish experience but the focus on the economic climate and political sensitivities for this decision. If politicians do not want to be seen as undermining marriage then they will need to try harder - there is plenty of evidence that there is less to fear from giving rights to de facto couples and their families than we have from ignoring the issue of cohabitation and throwing the victims of assumed legal rights onto the state's coffers. We will have to pay for that in the long run and time will tell - by 2031 one in four couples are predicted to cohabit.

Finally - in 2007 the UN reported that the UK was the unhappiest of places for children to live. All we have four years later, according to this new report, are parents bribing their children with consumer items to make up for the lack of meaningful  time to spend as a family. The current economic climate has a lot to answer for - fear of job loss is likely to increase anxiety and ensure that precious family time is cut back to the bone in place of working all possible hours to try to keep the job, to be last in line for redundancy. Hundreds of children interviewed by the United Nations Children's Fund in Britain, Spain and Sweden appear to agree in what they wanted - to spend time with family and friends, take part in creative activity or sport, and to be spending time outdoors. From the interviews with British families it has become clear that many of them struggle to give each other the time needed, and parents feel that they simply cannot spend ‘un-tired' time with their children.

Time, yes, but time to give it back to families, I think.

Penny sets the questions for Family Law journalCPD, a new way to gain CPD points by answering multiple choice questions based on the content of the journal.

She is an Honorary Research Fellow at Liverpool University Centre for the Study of the Child, the Family and the Law. Click here to follow Penny Booth on Twitter.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.

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