Will reforms end scourge of delay?

Will reforms end scourge of delay?

There are now over 100,000 children awaiting a court decision on their future. Three quarters of them in ‘private law’, the children this charity is concerned with.

With an average duration of proceedings of 11 months, for the typical contested hearing the children may have been prevented from seeing a parent for a lot longer.

Such delay allows a “status quo” of minimal or no contact between a parent and child to develop, which the non-resident parent then must persuade the court to break. Such delay makes reconciliation between a parent and child more difficult to achieve. Such delay allows time for alienating behaviours to take effect; and all the while the child may be suffering anxiety and depression from not seeing the other parent, which runs the risk of becoming a permanent situation, with the long-term damage that entails.

As Nick Emmerson, President of the Law Society commented: “The delays prevent parents from being able to see their children and could mean children are left without the stability they need to thrive. This must be addressed urgently” More than 100,000 children trapped in family courts backlog | The Law Society.

As a charity whose advice is not to go to court unless it is unavoidable, we broadly welcome the proposed reforms and aims of the earlier resolution and Pathfinder initiatives – Supporting earlier resolution of private family law arrangements – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk); this includes early information, support and guidance for separating parents, an early legal advice pilot for both parents, the upfront dealing with domestic abuse allegations and a more investigative and less adversarial approach.

Family mediation is a key part of the process and there is a welcome and hopefully permanent extension to the £500 mediation voucher scheme, to enable couples to stay out of court if they can. Thousands of families spared from damaging courtroom conflict.

Of course, we are not expecting a perfect solution and we are making our arguments where appropriate such that any reservations can be allayed. The first is to ensure that mediation and the “non-court” pathway does not allow delay by other means, whether by a parent who remains resistant to contact or by the making of abuse allegations late on in the process; the right to resort to court where unavoidable thankfully remains. The second is to ensure that mediation is child centred and child inclusive with the right application of the voice of the child.  Leading on from that, third is the need to ensure mediation is properly structured to ensure the relative “bargaining power” of the parties does not trump arrangements in the best interest of the child. We fear that some excluded parents will accept inadequate arrangements for their children lest they not be allowed to see them at all for a seriously long time.

If the reforms can address those, then they are indeed a step in the right direction of dealing with the decimating effects of delay for children, parents and wider families alike.

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