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Penny Booth: Christmas comes but once a year...

Date:2 JAN 2013

Penny BoothChristmas always brings problems. Families thrust together at Christmas over the cheery holidays inevitably bring the possibility of issues thrust towards solicitors in the New Year. Is it really inevitable? Personally, a bit of thought and a holding-off from the legal conveyor belt always seems a better idea. After all, when the holidays are over there's always back to work.

So - as the year changes into different numerals, what have we in the family law scene?

Possible changes in the adoption scene. Adopting parents are to be given a greater say in the selection of their adoptive child according to new government proposals. A national register would be accessed by potential adopters and would even be able to request a particular child. Not sure about that. The time off work to meet children seems a good idea. A beauty pageant approach to selecting the child, though, just appears unseemly - however desperate the situation to get children into loving homes. We know they do better once there, but the ‘how they get there' is important, too.

Changes to child benefit. That one was inevitable and probably fair-ish. After all, have we really decided what kind of benefit it is? Do we really need (and can we afford?) universal benefits in the current climate? It seems as though some parents cannot agree whether the money should go to the parent who is the primary carer of the child, or simply be knocked off against the higher earner's tax during the year. What is not fair is the failure to account for combined incomes. Really, makes me as a maths duffer feel rather smug at being able to see that one, but I understand that the administration of combined incomes is opening that door to child support calculations the like of which nobody wants to see again. Who wants to calculate whether changing family structures and living arrangements should justify a change in a benefit originally intended as a universal benefit? It would be in danger of costing as much to administer than performing the calculation would save. It has not been called ‘family allowance' for a couple of decades now, but we do seem to be losing even the connection with children.

A and E child registers. The link between Accident and Emergency hospital visits with children in tow and a register of potential threats to the wellbeing of the child has all the hallmarks of the wrong answer to the right question. We have to protect children and prevent devious ‘carers' from carrying on with their abusive ways, but making it compulsory to engage in the online system which will (allegedly) alert hospital staff to a situation where a child has been brought in for treatment on multiple occasions will merely discourage carers from bringing children in for treatment (thus making the devious more devious), and put on hospital workers even more responsibility. What worker in the caring professions of whatever kind will not report a potential issue - the consequences of not doing so and getting it wrong will be even more serious. On balance, it will be reported every time simply because of the consequences of getting it wrong by not doing so. The child protection information system threatens to be a very costly potential problem in itself. It is a good idea that children ‘at risk' will be highlighted, but let's not consider this an answer to the problem of child abuse - it is not. Better training for more workers is the answer, not some computer system which lulls us into a sense of false security. I just hope there will be the resources to deal with the referred cases...

Same sex marriage. The moral maze, indeed. There has got to be a way through this, even if it doesn't suit everyone. Marriage is important - a truism if ever there was one. If it is important, then it is vital that we ensure it means something and we support it through appropriate legal steps and means of entering into and exiting from it. The importance lies in tying people together to encourage support and providing a structure for ‘family'. This can be performed through cohabitation, but that does not seem to provide the sound longevity sought by the State - or so government statistics tell us. Marriage has, over centuries, attracted religious significance outside the secular importance we now attach to it. Would it not be better to have everyone who wanted to enter into a marriage do so through a state mechanism for registering the marriage, then separate the religious significance as a distinct step to be taken afterwards? It isn't as if we don't already have precedence for an approach like this through religious marriages that are not on the State's ‘guest list'. Marriage as a sacrament can remain with its religious significance. What we cannot do is risk undermining marriage whatever the sex of the participants. Equality and our commitment to it demands compliance, the price may be more than our political masters want to pay. It will not be universally popular to equalise our provisions and call civil partnership a marriage, but other countries have managed it and their culture is not so very different from our own. When I look at how our lax morals, our testament to celebrity culture, our indifference to wider family values, our failure to look after the elderly, our misguidance of the young, our loss of a moral compass then I do wonder what we are supposed to be protecting if marriage is all it is lauded to be in our current climate. Yes, I value it, you do, too - but what about the others?

Babies are financially beneficial to males rather than females. A bit baffling, this one. Apparently, for a bloke to have "his" female have a baby leads to an increase in financial benefit, whereas for the female it leads to a loss in financial standing (blame the situation, biology, the research, but not me). What I find baffling is that anyone needed to do any research to find that out... Allow me to simplify... If you are a bloke and your female partner has a baby, you are alpha-bound and have managed to procreate. All ‘excuses' from you in your father-role indicate how valuable you are - after all, a bloke in employment saying he needs time off to play his role as father shows up the feminine side and indicates that he is sound, grounded and will not be unreliable because he now has a family to provide for. Now, substitute the bloke for the woman - perhaps you see what I mean? You can have all the equality legislation you like but there's that teeny spot that sounds louder than its size would hint-at that the female is just doing what she is supposed to do and if she wants to play with the boys she'd better be good at both and have some help at home to do it and perform in the workplace.

Perhaps I am cynical? As a mum of two who are now in their thirties I suffered from the false dawn of the seventies and eighties. I returned to work (part time - with no right to pay into the career pension at the time - I just couldn't otherwise manage full time) when the children were small and was told by another woman never to use the children as a reason for missing a meeting or being unable to manage a task. I was told to use a car repair, the arrival of a plumber or electrician, some other ‘grave matter' as a reason for leaving early, and never, ever, use the children. For a woman, the very reason that should be acceptable, and the one the blokes could use not only with impunity but with the added bonus, it seemed, was the very one I, as a woman, could not use. I'd like to think this has changed, but I'm not holding my breath, and nor am I holding a big pension pot - on that score I am probably like most women.

Now - tell me those issues are nothing to do with family lawyering.

Penny Booth writes the CPD questions for the Family Law journal. She is a freelance author and currently holds a teaching fellowship in Family Law at the Law School of the University of Manchester.

Contact Penny on Twitter: @Legalbirdie

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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