New pilots to keep separating parents out of court

The Children’s minister Margaret Hodge and Family Justice minister Lord Filkin announced new ‘Family Resolution Pilots’ in inner London, Brighton and Sunderland to divert families from court cases by helping them agree practical solutions. They also promised a package of measures including an additional GBP3.5 million for child contact services, including the funding of 14 new contact centres, and new forms to ensure that judges are aware of any accusations or instances of domestic violence at the start of contact cases.

“Our starting point is the principle that the welfare of the child must always be paramount in any decision-making concerning a child’s future, including decisions relating to contact,” said Margaret Hodge. “… Battles in the courts about contact and residence following separation or divorce can be harmful to children. That’s why we want divorcing or separating parents to reach agreement between themselves about arrangements for the future of their children.”

The pilots will run for a year and if successful will be rolled out nationally. Both parents will receive one-to-one sessions to agree a parenting plan, which, if necessary, could be ratified by a judge. Instead of waiting 10-16 weeks for the first hearing in court, parents will meet a family mediator to discuss contacts within two weeks. Parents will not be compelled to take part in the pilots, but the judge might later question why they did not.

The Solicitors Family Law Association (SFLA) welcomed the pilots as “a positive development”. “There is great scope for increasing the use of mediation to assist parents in resolving disagreements early on and before they enter the court system,” commented the new SFLA chair Kim Beatson. “A structured approach which informs parents about the benefits of contact for the child and the typical arrangements made by other families will undoubtedly help people avoid unnecessary litigation.”

But Beatson argued that there would have be an element of compulsion to the appointments under the pilot scheme for it to be effective and predicted that parties were “simply going to drift back to court unless mediation is very directive”. She also argued for legally trained mediators to be used. “If the mediator is going to give legal information – such as what is the likely outcome, or information about costs and the legal process – then it ought to be a legally qualified mediator,” she added.

The SFLA are presently looking at “collaborative parenting” proposals in contact disputes, where both parents continue to share responsibility for their children’s upbringing after separation. “This does not necessarily involve splitting the children’s time according to a fixed timetable,” the group said. “Rather, it means both parents continuing to offer physical, emotional and financial support for their children.” The SFLA is waiting for feedback from members on its own proposals. Ideas under consideration include adopting terms like ‘parenting time’ and ‘Parenting Orders’ rather than ‘contact’ and ‘Contact Orders’ which they consider to be “disempowering”. According to the group, there should be “no presumption” that one form of parenting agreement is superior to another and “an ideal arrangement” would be for children to “feel comfortable in two homes”. They are also looking at proposals that parents must attend a preliminary session for information, advice and assessment for mediation before any Court application is issued. All parents would be expected to submit and agree a parenting plan in the preliminary session or in subsequent mediation sessions.