It's the first day of training for children scheme arbitrators. Back with our trainer, Suzanne Kingston, from our financial arbitration training, this time partnered by Janet Bazley QC, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air as we gathered. All the delegates were qualified as financial scheme IFLA arbitrators and all were clearly intrigued to find out how that scheme had been adapted to meet the unique needs of determining a child arrangements dispute.
The course outline was impressive, covering a huge volume of material in a day, and obviously having involved an enormous amount of work to develop. Starting with a quick canter through the procedural requirements of an arbitration under the Arbitration Act 1996, we quickly moved on to look at some of the particular challenges of providing an arbitration solution in children matters.
One area focused on was the question of safeguarding in family arbitration. Inevitably, this provoked strong responses from the assembled delegates. Unlike the courts, we will not have the assistance of Cafcass in early identification of any safeguarding risks in an arbitration case. A lively debate followed, as we explored the different ways of addressing this crucial issue for practitioners. One pervasive theme: we will be working closely with independent social workers, whose contribution will be key to the successful arbitration of children disputes.
The voice of the child was another contentious issue –
should arbitrators themselves meet with children in the course of an arbitration? If so, what training should they have, and what should be the purpose of such a meeting? In any event, how should the children's voices be heard within the process and how should their wishes and feelings be canvassed? Again, we heard a range of different views and approaches, and again, it was clear that the role of the independent social workers was going to be critical in the process.
The afternoon was built around a case study, as delegates looked at the practical application of the Rules and procedural steps 'in action'. We soon realised both the potential benefits for clients, and the weight of responsibility on practitioners, in designing a process which is genuinely tailored to the needs of the specific family in question.
In many ways, the Children Scheme inevitably shares many of the benefits and advantages already familiar from the Financial Scheme. The most exciting thing, perhaps, being the chance for arbitration to pace the process to meet the needs of children and families in a way that the courts simply cannot.
Time-critical decisions have become increasingly difficult to obtain through our over-burdened court system. Issues around education, with looming deadlines for school entrance applications or academic timetables; arrangements for holidays and Christmas, where decisions need to be made quickly and fairly; or those cases where time is needed to allow the family to adjust to new circumstances and be emotionally and practically ready for the next steps: the benefits of a tailored and responsive process in these situations are self-evident. The option, too, of an 'all issues' arbitration, with the same person able to look at the child and financial arrangements to provide an integrated solution is bound to be attractive.
If any practitioners have questions about the new scheme please contact Grant Howell or Suzanne Kingston. For queries regarding training for the scheme contact Jacqui Jackson.