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Family law news round-up 2008

Date:23 DEC 2008

Hugh Logue, Legal News Editor

Throughout 2008 family law topics have been at the forefront of the news agenda, from celebrity divorces to the outrage caused by the tragic death of a child who was on the child protection register. As 2008 draws to a close, Newswatch looks back the year's family law news.

The year got underway on 9 January when the process of replacing the Child Support Agency began in earnest when Stephen Geraghty was appointed as Commissioner of the new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission.

Mr Justice Munby rebuked Nottingham social services at the end of January when he ordered the immediate return of a newborn baby to its 18-year-old mother after the baby was removed without a court order. The judge described the situation as "most unfortunate" and said no baby could be removed simply "as the result of a decision taken by officials in some room".

February saw the beginning of the hugely publicised Mills and McCartney divorce. Although Ms Mills, who represented herself, had sought £125 million in March, Mr Justice Bennett awarded her £24.3 million in her divorce settlement. Ms Mills was clearly not happy with the outcome, as she made obvious at the end of the hearing when she poured a jug of water over the head of Sir Paul's solicitor, Fiona Shackleton.

The long awaited Public Law Outline (PLO) was published in February. The PLO aims to reduce unnecessary delay and is designed to promote better co-operation between all the parties involved in care and supervision cases by setting an appropriate timetable for cases, focused around the needs of the individual child and promoting better case management and earlier identification of the key issues.

Divorce lawyers would have been reassured in March when a study published by Office for National Statistics (ONS) predicted that around 45 per cent of marriages will end in divorce . The study was published just a day after the ONS also reported that marriage rates had fallen to the lowest level since records began.

Prominent High Court Judge, Mr Justice Coleridge told family lawyers at the annual Resolution conference in April that "the time has come for family judges to speak out publicly in protest at the way in which the family justice system in this country has been and is being mismanaged and neglected by government". He caught media headlines when he went further and warned that the effects of family breakdown will be "as marked and as destructive as global warming" if the government does not introduce fundamental reform.

After two high profile cases of paediatricians who appeared as expert witnesses being struck off by the General Medical Council (GMC), in April doctors at the annual meeting of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH ) called for better protection from vexatious complainants. However in July, the controversial paediatrician David Southall was cleared of serious professional misconduct by the GMC and in September he was allowed to return to child protection work.

In April, to the dismay of a great number family lawyers, the Government put into effect plans to increase by over three thousand percent the cost of issuing court proceedings to protect vulnerable children. On 1 May the Family Proceedings Fees Order came into force and the fee paid by a local authority to go to court to protect a child at risk from abuse rose from £150 to £5,225 for a fully contested court case.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) consulted on the Adoption and Children Act 2006 rules in May and the remaining provisions of Part 1 of the Children and Adoption Act 2006 came into force in December. The new measures give courts increased powers to resolve child contact disputes and enforce contact orders.

MPs in May voted to remove the requirement that fertility clinics consider the need for a father before allowing women to seek IVF treatment and the ensuing Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill cleared Parliament in November and is awaiting Royal Assent before becoming law.

The Legal Services Commission (LSC) angered barristers at the end of May by announcing at a private media briefing that it intends to reduce funding for representation by barristers in family law cases by 15%. The Law Society conflicted with the Family Law Bar Association in September when it spoke out against Barristers being paid more than their solicitor counterparts for advocacy in family legal aid cases. In December LSC and MoJ advanced their funding plans by launching a consultation on proposals to reform payments from 2010 for solicitors and barristers carrying out family legal aid work.

There were early indications in May of the problems with child protection services that would come to light in November through the Baby P case when the mother of Victoria Climbié, who was tortured and murdered in 2000, said in that she had been 'betrayed' by local government authorities who had still failed to implement recommendations made by Lord Laming, who led a government inquiry into her daughter's case.

Plans to change the law to require fathers as well as mothers to be named on the birth certificate were announced by the Government in June.

The House of Lords ruled in June in the case of Re B (children) [2008] UKHL 35 that the standard of proof to establish the threshold for making a care order was the balance of probabilities.

Civil partnerships fell by 46 per cent in 2007, according to according to figures released by the ONS in June. The drop was attributed to the fact that many same-sex couples in long-standing relationships took advantage of the opportunity to formalise their relationship in the period immediately after the Civil Partnership Act came into force in December 2005.

In an interview with Newswatch in July, District Judge Crichton said that Child protection in England and Wales is a 'scandal'. Speaking about the increase the Family Proceedings Fees four months before the failings of the child protection services in the Baby P case came to light, Nicholas Crichton said: "This is a Government which talks 'big' about the importance of protecting children from abuse and neglect, but which does not deliver. They are driven solely by financial imperatives. No one would suggest that financial considerations are not important, but in the field of child protection the Government's present initiative is nothing short of a scandal."

The Times won the right to publish details in July of a family case involving a mother who fled to France with her son after he was placed in foster care. The newspaper also ran a campaign for family courts to be opened to the media and in December they were successful when Justice Secretary Jack Straw announced that Family court hearings are for the first time to be opened to accredited media from 1 April 2009.

Having predicted in March that the divorce rate will rise to 45 per cent, the ONS released seemingly contradictory statistical evidence in August revealing that the divorce rate in England and Wales was at its lowest for 26 years.

In September a leaked letter from the Courts Service revealed that the introduction of the controversial Family Proceedings Fees Order, which came into force on 1 May 2008, caused a sharp drop in child protection cases being issued by local authorities and has contributed to a £90m shortfall in the Courts Service's budget over the next three years.

The Government announced in September that it will sign the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in full, removing the UK's two remaining reservations to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

As Lord Igor Judge became the Lord Chief Justice on 1 October, new court robes in civil and family law cases were also introduced. Fashion designer, Betty Jackson CBE, worked on a pro-bono basis as the design consultant for the new robes.

The whole country was shocked in November as the full extent of the injuries inflicted upon a 17-month-old baby, known only as Baby P, emerged. Ministers called for an urgent action and Lord Laming was appointed to conduct a further review of child protection laws. The Co-Chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children, Piers Pressdee, criticised the Government over the failings of the child protection system that led to Baby P's death. Haringey Council sacked its head of children's services Sharon Shoesmith and Council leader George Meehan and Liz Santry, the cabinet member for children and young people, both resigned. In giving evidence to the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee on the Baby P case, Christine Gilbert, Ofsted's Chief Inspector, revealed that three children a week dying as a result of abuse.

The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 came into force on 25 November. The new legislation will enable courts to prevent forced marriages and order those responsible for forcing another into marriage to change their behaviour or face jail. In December the Act was used in rescuing a trainee NHS doctor from a forced marriage in Bangladesh.

Most of the provisions of the Allocation and Transfer of Proceedings Order 2008 and the Allocation and Transfer of Proceedings Practice Direction also came into force on 25 November. Family magistrates welcomed the move as it is likely to ensure that the Family Proceedings Courts will get more work.

The age at which someone can apply for a marriage visa increased from 18 to 21 at the end of November.

Finally, on the 11 December Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC and Resolution's Cohabitation Bill had its first reading in the House of Lords.

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We hope you have a good holiday and we look forward to bringing you more family law updates in the New Year.