For many years, a lot of parents who separate on difficult terms expect to fight over their competing ‘rights’, rather than cooperate over their shared ‘responsibilities’ of their children. This was up until very recently, when The Family Solutions Group was set up in January 2020. “The Family Solutions Group is a sub-group of the Private Law Working Group. It is a multidisciplinary group with broad and deep expertise in working with separated families in and out of court.”1 The purpose of the group was to provide recommendations on immediate improvements that can be made, with specific focus on improving the experiences of separating families away from the Family Court, where it is safe to do so. They look to provide support to individuals, parents and children from the moment of relationship breakdown up to a time when an application to court may be made.
What is at the heart of the issue?
“Every year, around 280,000 children see their parents separate in the UK.”1
That is a staggering statistic and it is critical to recognise that children are at risk when their parents separate, family breakdown is a vulnerable situation for children to be in and any inter-parental conflict will impact their long term mental health and the future life chances. When the Children Act 1989 was implemented, it made radical changes to the law relating to children and their families, it introduced the idea of ‘parental responsibility’ in replace of the old concept of child ‘custody’. “The Children Act was to be a ‘charter for children’, yet three decades on their voices, rights and interests are still marginalised in decision-making when parents separate.”2
“Some families need the protection of the family court.”1
There are certainly some circumstances that require the Family Court to provide protection, for example when the welfare of the children or one of the separating adults is a concern. However, “the law is clear, that in the absence of safety concerns, a child should be able to enjoy a close relationship with both parents, and one parent does not have the right to stop that.”2
“A ‘justice’ response to parenting disagreements is a blunt instrument for a family going through a vulnerable time.”1 The justice system may just increase stress and conflict within the family, overlook any unresolved emotions from a relationship breakdown and simply prevent the protection of the children involved. It is now the time to put children’s rights and welfare first.
“The ‘Family Justice System’ is in crisis.”2
The Family Solutions Group have been identifying ways in which improvements can be made for parents and children within the current system. Their “recommendations take advantage of child-focussed legislation, rules and professional duties which already exist but are not widely understood or applied.”2
What are the recommendations of The Family Solutions Group?
They have produced nine core recommendations that can be changed and implemented with immediate effect:
- Political Responsibility:
“Family breakdown affects every government department and its annual cost to the nation is estimated as tens of billions. Yet there is no overarching policy or provision for the children of families who live apart, and no government department with responsibility for separating families.”1 They are suggesting a more coordinated approach across government departments.
- Public Education
“Separating parents need to be steered away from acrimonious court proceedings.”1 They encourage a public education campaign to highlight the importance of child welfare during family breakdown and suggest that children should be able to enjoy a relationship with both parents if there are no safety concerns. They note that there is also importance in the child being part of an ongoing parent relationship.
- A Framework of Support Services for Children and Young People
“The current system is entirely led by the needs and wishes of parents.”2 There is information available to young people online, but it is difficult to know what to trust and is not easily accessible. They recommend a framework of “direct support services for information, consultation, support and representation for children and young people whose parents separate.”2
- Two Possible Pathways
Some families need the protection of the Family Court, but others do not. The recommendation is to have:
- “The safety pathway – those needing safety to be immediately signposted to appropriate legal and other support.”2
- “The cooperative parenting pathway – parents to be supported in understanding the long-term needs of the child and offered options for resolving issues with the other parent.”2
A legal response should not always be the default option.
- A Holistic Approach
“A holistic approach which takes into account the emotional state of the parents and their ability to resolve issues.”2 It is recommended that programmes should be implemented that support parents to overcome the emotions relating to the relationship breakdown.
- Parenting Programmes
They are calling for the “attendance by parents at a registered parenting programme to become the norm following separation.”2
- Language and Process
In many cases the ‘disputes’ between parents are actually a symptom of broken communication. It is recommended that there is a “shift in language away from legal disputes towards a language of supporting parents to resolve issues together.”2
- Family Professionals
The family need to get the best support, someone who can consider how the processes will affect the parent relationship. One way of doing this would be to introduce “local networks of ‘family professionals’ to promote an integrated approach to problem-solving issues between parents, with therapists, parenting specialists, mediators and legal services.”2
- Interface with the Family Court
“Rules exist to promote the diversion of cases to be resolved out of court, but these are not being followed in many family courts.”2 It is recommended that family judges, magistrates and legal advisors are provided with training relating to the benefits to children of parents who resolve issues together, away from the court.
The Family Solutions Group are “calling for a reframing of the conversation so that young people’s needs, and voices are centre stage when parents separate.”1
The recommendations are essentially about communication, moving away from a ‘justice’ response and making child welfare the central and overriding factor.
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