F4J Relaunch

Pootling around on the internet in the light of this weeks horse painting shennanigans I came across Matt O’Connor’s new blog Father4Justice, the new F4J website (be warned, it looks nice but plays annoying music which won’t turn off) and facebook group for the recently relaunched Fathers 4 Justice. Matt O’Connor’s first substantive blog post explaining the decision to re-enter the fray and to relaunch F4J is (as ever with Matt O’Connor) punchy, hard hitting and well crafted – it roused my rabble – and I’m “the enemy”.

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But seriously, although I don’t buy into many of the conspiracy theories about the anti-male agenda of the system, there is a place for campaigns for reform of the family justice system – dads, mums and kids do very often get a raw deal. And although I recognise that for many I’m part of the problem, I like to think I do my bit for justice, even though I do it from within the system.

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As for public campaigns, I’m sure that Matt O’Connor is a fantastic spokesperson and l0bbyist for F4J, and the new web / social media presence is certainly well designed and slick – and importantly very grown up. But how does F4J (the ‘official campaign’ as it has been forced to call itself) deal with the splitters and splinter groups that persistently damage its reputation and undermine the progress it is striving to make? Its the same old problem faced from Northern Ireland to Monty Python and I don’t think there is an easy answer. It damages credibility and its a chronic problem – and judging from correspondence being circulated by New F4J* its a problem that is likely to become acute in coming months.

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* I’m puzzled by this email from New F4J [edited to refer correctly to NEW F4J- oops], which starts off by ‘not condoning’ the vandalism, but by the end rather appears to have turned about face: ‘so be it’ and even to threaten more of the same ‘expect the unexpected’. That doesn’t read to me as a completely wholehearted condemnation of criminal acts in the name of father’s rights.

Reformed Meat

So the Government has published its Families & Relationships Green Paper in which it proposes a fundamental review of the Family Justice System and a number of other reforms. Like John Bolch at Family Lore I’m not sure what this really adds up to. There are a number of press releases from the relevant departments: DCSF and MoJ. So what does it all mean for the family justice system?

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Primarily, there’s a review which we won’t know the outcome of until 2011, and right now we don’t even know who will conduct it. Judging from the press releases it seems to be predicated upon the assertion that the problem is the adversarial nature of court proceedings and the fact that they heighten conflict. Jack Straw says:

‘We know that for many families the current family justice system is proving far too complicated, and its adversarial nature can lead to bitter, lengthy court hearings, prolonging what is already a stressful and emotionally draining experience. ‘

So in summary, the Courts make it worse. Of course it’s a no brainer that the adversarial nature of proceedings can increase the temperature but that does rather dance over the fact that it is only the most highly conflicted cases that end up in court at all. Most couples do find other ways  to sort things out, and even those that end up in the system must pass through a barrage of non-adversarial processes designed at resolution (in court conciliation, lawyer assisted negotiation etc.) before they ever get to an old fashioned trial. And in the current circumstances its not the court system per se which worsens conflict, and it’s not because it’s all too complicated –  it’s the lack of resources available to properly run the court system that leads to delay, frustration and despondency, and perpetuates or exacerbates conflict.

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And one might get the impression from reading the press releases that the alternative of mediation is something that is practically unheard of. That despite the fact that a mediation referral is compulsory for anyone publicly funded, that alternative dispute resolution services including collaborative law are offered as an alternative by many family solicitors, and that the court itself encourages mediation and provides in court conciliation. Again, many many families are diverted from the courts already – whilst encouraging more out of court resolution is a good thing, there will always be those conflicts which cannot be resolved without the help of the court. And for those cases the system absolutely must work properly. I don’t see anything in the governments proposals that will make the system more effective for that small slice of the most difficult cases – no money for Courts, CAFCASS or legal aid. Fundamentally a family is made up of two parents and child – if one of those parents refuses to mediate, is implacable or unable to put aside the conflict – how does the magic of mediation help that child, the other parent? Someone has to resolve that situation not by agreement but by making it happen. Who else but a Judge? Does the Government secretly hope that if they stick a few adverts for mediation on direct.gov.uk that all private law cases will be magically diverted from the court system and hey presto the LSC and CAFCASS budgets can be slashed by half?

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But what really doesn’t gel for me is that, hand in hand with the proposition that we must get all these families out of the courts (because courts just make things worse), is the move to make it easier for grandparents to bring a court case for contact. Sorry? Am I missing something?

  • Firstly, the vast majority of grandparents will never have any need to apply to court for contact unless it is because of a difficult relationship breakdown between the parents of the child, which has led to them being cut out. So the Government wants the parents to go to mediation, but wants to make it easier for their own parents or in-laws to drag them into court by being able to launch their own application for contact in the court? Genius.
  • Secondly, most grandparents do their utmost to avoid being drawn into the dispute between the parents – they support and they wait for things to get better. Sometimes they even broker a delicate peace treaty for the sake of the children or facilitate parental contact where the parents can’t meet without fighting. Why would we want to encourage them to become a part of the problem, to compete for a slice of the child’s already salami sliced time?
  • Thirdly, unfortunately some grandparents really do their best to foment discontent and actually ratchet up the disharmony. They side with their offspring and whisper and gripe and wind them up. Do we want that type of grandparent to be able to launch proceedings at the drop of a hat? Imagine a grandparent who can get legal aid where their offspring cannot pursuing an agenda effectively as a proxy for their child…Grandparents are often hugely important and courts recognise this, but at the end of the day the courts priority is and should remain a child’s contact with her parents.
  • Fourthly, we all know that where a grandparent is making a sensible application to the court they will almost inevitably be granted leave – the leave requirement does not prevent grandparents pursuing contact and there is really no pressing need to remove it.

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There is some potentially positive stuff in the paper about strengthening support for grandparents and extended family or family friends who are caring for children who cannot be with their parents – this is an area that could certainly do with looking at. Grandparents are often very unsupported by local authorities who are responsible for children in care proceedings, and can be taken for granted or seen as the cheap and easy option. Informal arrangements made outside of care proceedings often mean that needy families muddle along without services that could really help. Pa 3.59 is not explicit but it seems to be a reference to the difficulties obtaining legal aid for extended family members within care, residence or SGO proceedings.

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Overall though I’m not convinced this is really a coherent package of reform for families. It sounds superficially attractive to say: “more mediation, less courts, pat on the back for grandparents – job done”, but it is an odd mix of potentially ill thought through proposals. To me it has more than a whiff of being aimed at soothing certain voter demographics and influential groups. There is not a lot in the way of concrete promises or reform – much of it is still up for grabs. These are only proposals and the review will, one hopes, consider the kinds of issues I’ve raised above. For all the guff in the press releases the actual terms of reference of the review are encouraging and certainly provide scope for the review to highlight the need to increase resources to the courts and to find ways of promoting the welfare of children whilst minimising delay. So it could produce a genuinely fundamental set of proposals for reform and improvement.

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That said, goodness only knows what state the system will be in by the time the review report sees the light of day. I’d bet that some of my clients will still be crawling through the system by the time that happens. It’s a cruel irony that we must adjourn this argument whilst we wait an interminably long time for the crucial report…

FAMILY LEGAL AID PLANS TORN APART IN DAMNING JUSTICE SELECT COMMITTEE REPORT

Ah, it’s just a roller coaster in this job. You never know what to expect – at court, or in your bank account. Don’t you just love it? Today the Justice Select Committee has blown a great big hole in the bow of the LSC proposals to cut our fees (I’d like to say it was all my doing as a result of my eloquent whining at the House of Lords the other day, but I suppose we must give credit to others who have been continuously banging their collective heads against the walls of the LSC trying to get through to them for the longest time).

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As much as I did enjoy reading the press release below, I’d much rather forfeit all the PR noise to know if I’m going to be able to pay my mortgage next year. Who knows what lies in store on this endless voyage? I am feeling pretty seasick (it’s probably all the mixed metaphors I had for lunch). One more consultation and I’m going to walk the plank! So without further ado follows the Bar Council Press Release, which needs no editing:

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Legal Services Commission proposals to cut legal support for vulnerable children and families have been savaged in a damning report from the all-party Justice Select Committee.

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The report, published today, concludes that ‘proposals for reform were based on incomplete data, [and] a superficial understanding of the supply of legal services in this area’.

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The LSC’s approach to reform is condemned as ‘flawed, weak and inflexible’. It is criticised for a ‘conclusions first, evidence after’ approach to policy-making, having commissioned Ernst & Young to gather data to inform its thinking after proposing swingeing cuts to the system.

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Commenting today, Chairman of the Family Law Bar Association (FLBA), Lucy Theis QC said:
‘Surely now the LSC will wake up to reality: its plans for family legal aid are unwelcome, unworkable and unwanted.

‘On reading this report, Justice Ministers will realise that the LSC has failed a basic test of competence when it comes to delivering reform.

‘The Commissions determination to bulldoze through ill-considered changes without proper evidence or any analysis of the impact upon budget or diversity risks irreparable damage to the protection of vulnerable children and families.

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Desmond Browne QC, Chairman of the Bar Council added:
‘This is a simply devastating condemnation of the LSC’s hapless efforts at reform. It shows that it is not practitioners who have pushed up the cost of legal aid. The LSC’s proposals were based on flawed data and were introduced without any prior assessment of the economic impact or the consequences for women and BME practitioners.

 

‘As the Committee says, without qualification, this is discriminatory. It is wholly inconsistent with the Government’s desire to see a more diverse pool of advocates from which in time a more diverse judiciary can be appointed.

 

He added:
‘The Committee has endorsed every single one of the concerns of the FLBA and the Bar Council.

 

‘The Committee has confirmed our warning that there is a serious risk of an exodus of experienced practitioners from publicly-funded family law practice.

‘The time has now come for Ministers to act on our concerns. As the Committee says: “there needs to be fundamental change of attitude on the part of the LSC”.

You don’t say! (that bit wasn’t part of the press release).

POSTSCRIPT: Read the report here.