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New research shows a different way forward for work with separating families

Date:4 JAN 2016
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A new research report based on Resolution’s ground-breaking Family Matters service, has revealed new insights into practice for professionals working with separating families. This research, conducted by Dr Christine Skinner from the University of York focused on understanding the experience of delivering this new experimental model of practice that aimed to work jointly with both separating parents. The Family Matters service was funded by the Department for Work and Pensions under the Help and Support for Separating Families (HSSF) programme.

The research report was unveiled at a launch event in London in December under the ESRC’s international seminar entitled 'Divorce and Separation: New Models of Professional Practice’, with a thought-provoking debate looking at different practice models, including the revolutionary Australian Family Relationship Centres.

The Family Matters service, which ran in Crewe, Newcastle and Oxford, employing trained lawyer-mediators to work as 'Guides' for separating and separated families no longer eligible for legal aid since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2013 removed most family legal aid. Over the course of 30 months of operation, the service managed to help 1,570 families in Oxford, Newcastle and Crewe, with 96% of clients reporting the support they received was beneficial.

Importantly, Family Matters Guides, while bringing their professional experience to bear in their work with parents, did not act as a lawyer or a mediator, instead they operated in a hybrid mode providing neutral legal information and support to enable them to work with both parents to help them move towards resolution in a non-adversarial way.

Dr Christine Skinner, Reader in Social Policy at University of York, says:

'This was an exceptional innovation created by Resolution. It pushed the boundaries of traditional legal practice to explore how professionals might combine a set of skills to work with parents together in a neutral way to help them make their own agreements in the best interests of their children’. It has generated a lot of valuable knowledge about the challenges of engaging both parents in the process of resolution and it will continue to inform debates about the future of practice among family law professionals for some time to come.'

Family Matters trialled a new approach to practice, with research into the model finding many implications for professional practice with separating families:
  • The unique, new approach of the Family Matters Guides, combining the roles of mediator and lawyer without the traditional professional constraints of either, allowed them to work more impartially and collaboratively with parents.
  • The research identified a possible ‘early stage’ in the separation process or dispute in which parents needed intensive support to help them ‘move on’ to the next stage to resolution.
  • The Family Matters Guides believed that the 'neutral voice' they provided helped parents to minimise conflict during the separation process and enabled them to keep their relationship more stable while they decided their next course of action and, importantly, helped them to become ready for mediation.
Resolution’s Ida Forster, manager of the Family Matters service, says:

'Resolution is proud to have provided the Family Matters service and supported separating families with help and guidance that, as this research shows, was truly beneficial in helping them manage their separation with less conflict. We hope that the insights from this research will be taken on board by Government and policy-makers in deciding the best way to support families dealing with divorce and separation in the post-legal aid landscape.'

The full report, 'Divorce and Separation: New Models of Professional Practice' is available to download here.

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