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Where’s the fury? Unnecessary family court taxpayer burden

Date:22 OCT 2020
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Chief Executive, NFM

From time to time over the years I’ve read semi-hysterical news articles quoting self-appointed protectors of taxpayer money, expressing fury at apparent wasting of public funds on a whole raft of things. 

Now, maybe there are no headlines to be had from highlighting any excessive and ‘wasteful’ public spend on family courts.  

After all, for some it’s easier to complain about the BBC licence fee or the investment of UK money in developing countries. 

But recent public comments made by His Honour Judge Wildblood QC would, I am sure, be enough to inflame most taxpayers. If only they knew. 

Judge Wildblood’s 25 September judgement laid bare the extent to which court lists are being filled by interim private law hearings that should and could be settled out of court. 

He cited some issues he had been called on to deal with in court. They included which parent should hold the children’s passports, how Sunday afternoon contact should be arranged, and at which motorway junction a child should be handed over for contact. He made it clear these were just examples: that he and other judges have faced similar time- and money-wasting issues. 

Family law professionals and members of the public alike know about the crisis in family courts. Initially triggered by soaring numbers of litigants-in-person, it’s of course been exacerbated by delays created by Covd-19 restrictions.

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Yet there’s far less awareness of the soaring level of litigation over trivial issues that should not in a million years be brought before a publicly-funded court. 

Requests for micro-management of family disputes are clearly on the rise. 

This is beginning to heap further unreasonable pressures on the public purse. Family courts, after all, are paid for by public funds. In other words, taxpayers foot the bill. So where’s the fury?  

Judge Wildblood’s message was clear: clients should settle “differences (or those of your clients) away from court, except where that is not possible.” 

“There are many other ways to settle disagreements, such as mediation,” he added. 

Government Ministers seem to agree. They continually say they support mediation as a means of keeping families out of court, wishing for its expansion and increased take-up. 

As the largest provider of family mediation in England and Wales, NFM has recently set out steps we want the government to take to help address the increasing family court logjam – which converts into taxpayers’ pounds and pence. 

One of these is ensuring family courts make better use of the powers they already have to adjourn cases for MIAM attendance as a contact activity. It could either be separate to an order to attend a parenting programme or at the same time, and as routine when cases are set to face significant delay before they come to court. 

As a family mediation professional, you will understand my wish to focus on increasing access for mediators to more separating couples. 

But I’m a taxpayer too. I can’t stand by and allow public funds to be used for expensive family courts to issue verdicts on things like at which motorway junction a child should be handed over.  

Millions of others should also demand that common sense prevails.