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Amandeep Gill's Analysis: Family law reform required

Date:8 JUN 2010

Amandeep GillReading through the press, two recent headlines immediately grabbed my attention. The first reported that Tamara Dyson had snatched her 4 year old twins from a contact centre. After a nationwide hunt, the children were found safe and well. 

The second headline reported the tragic deaths of Rebecca Smith aged 5 and her 11 month old brother Daniel. Fearing that the children would be removed from her care, both children were allegedly smothered by their mother Lianne. Their father, Martin Smith had recently been extradited from Spain to the UK to face child sex charges.  In a letter Mrs Smith lay the blame for her children's deaths squarely at the door of Staffordshire Social Services referring to an alleged policy of forced adoptions.  

Both cases highlight the alarming trend of parents taking the law into their own hands when faced with the prospect, real or imagined, of their children being removed from their care. It was reported that Tamara Dyson had been informed by social workers that the chances of her caring permanently for her twins were slim. Lianne Smith, fled her home in Barcelona after social workers attempted to contact her. Mrs Smith subsequently referred to this as an attempt to take her children. 

So how can such desperate and tragic acts be averted? Lifting reporting restrictions in family courts may be one way forward. However the potential benefits of reporting are likely to be missed as a result of editors reporting only those cases deemed to be newsworthy. Reporting of the latest celebrity divorce is unlikely to advance the understanding of outcomes in often complex public and private children law proceedings. Some may argue that it is too soon to judge the impact of lifting reporting restrictions. 

Lianne Smith was however a former manager at Cumbria County Council child services department.  She is likely to have firsthand knowledge of children law proceedings which suggests that opening up the family courts may not be enough. Wide ranging reform of the family justice system is required and is long overdue.

The coalition government is committed to a review of family law proceedings, with particular emphasis on exploring the use of mediation. A recent LSC pilot scheme made family mediation available at court to legally aided parties in disputes involving children between July and December 2009. The results however made depressing reading. Settlement was achieved in less than a third of cases. 

The sad reality is that many disputes concerning children are often highly charged and hotly contested. Many parents feel that their voices are not being heard during the Court process. As recent headlines show parents are increasingly taking extreme action out of desperation. Unless and until this is addressed the legal system will continue to fail children such as Rebecca and Daniel Smith, whom it should be protecting.

Amandeep Gill is a Professional Training PSL at Jordan Publishing.