Inspiring separating couples to make their own informed decisions

Archive for November, 2012

Damming Family Legal Aid Cuts

There has been a lot of media hype and genuine concern from professionals involved in the family sector and from couples facing family breakdown about the forthcoming legal aid cuts in April 2013.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the cuts, as of 1st April 2013 there will effectively be no legal aid for family matters on separation/divorce and related issues about property & finance and children’s arrangements unless there has been recent, proven domestic violence and/or there are significant child welfare/public child protection concerns.

There will however, continue to be legal aid for family mediation if you qualify for legal aid in line with the financial criteria as set by the legal services commission.

Whilst I’m a great supporter of dispute resolution out of Court, sadly it will not be suitable for every case and there will be many instances when the separating couple will have no choice but to sort out their differences through the Court system. As a result, unintentionally, the system will as of April 2013, be geared up in favour of those who can afford the services of a solicitor. Those that cannot, will be left to fend for themselves and will be at huge disadvantage, acting as a self represented person without the benefit of legal advice, assistance and representation.

Yes, there is talk of a family law hub, to be set up by the Government to help litigants who will be representing themselves but this will be of little use to those who do not have access to the internet and to people who cannot understand the information because they are less able either through a physical or learning difficulty. Or maybe, the person is just not emotionally/psychologically fit enough to conduct their own case . Litigation can be a daunting prospect for an expert family solicitor in complex family cases, let alone the client attempting to represent him or herself in Court.

As opposed to helping free up Court/Judiciary time, which is the intended desire of the Family Justice Review, the legal aid cuts will have a damming impact upon the Courts by clogging them with self representing litigants who will need more time and energy spent on them by the Judiciary to make sure that Justice is seen to be done and is done.

The sole reason for these legal aid cuts was to save the public purse £350 million from the legal aid budget. In spite of criticism from the President of the Family Division, Head of Family Justice, Sir Nicholas Wall ( in December 2011) the legal aid cuts have been endorsed by the Government. Unless there is a much needed U-turn, the legal aid cuts will come into effect in just over 4 months time.

In my humble opinion, I think that the Government has been short-sighted in its decision-making process. The Family Courts and Judiciary are already over stretched in dealing with the existing family caseload, where the parties continue to have the benefit of family legal aid and the support of their expert solicitors – I dread to think of the chaos and injustice that will be caused as of April 2013 when the damming family legal aid cuts come into effect.

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Shared Parenting

There has been much debate about the Government’s plans to introduce a new clause to the Children Act 1989 to provide a presumption in statute for shared parenting. The explanatory notes to the proposed change in the law states that the amendment is intended to reinforce the importance of children having an ongoing relationship with both parents after their separation subject to

  1. it being safe and
  2. in the child’s best interests. 

Those groups supporting the change believe that it is long over due and that a change in the law will secure equal rights for both parents when the Court considers applications under the Children Act .

However there is grave concern from other groups that the change in law will lead to more litigation with separating parents becoming concerned about their own rights under the proposed  new terms as opposed to what arrangements will best serve their children’s needs.

Currently, the main focus is on the welfare of the child. The key concern with the proposed amendment is that separating couples will have competing claims under the Children Act about their right to shared parenting verses the welfare of the child, which should be paramount.

Having practiced as a family solicitor for over 20 years, my experience has been that the starting point for most professionals involved in family break down, including the Judiciary,  is to strive for arrangements that will allow the children to spend quality time with both parents and to allow for an ongoing, meaningful relationship with them. This has always been subject to the two proviso’s as set out above.

Usually the parents agree to this unwritten principle except they do not always agree on how to share the time with their child/children, which  has then lead to Court applications for Contact and Residence Orders under the Children Act .

It seems to me that by adding the wording proposed to the existing statute that is already implicit, is not going to reinforce equal parenting rights but will unwittingly lead to more conflict and confusion, thus more cases in Court as opposed to settling out of Court, which was supposed to be the Government’s main aim with the pre action protocol on family mediation issued in April 2011.

I hope that those of you  facing family breakdown do not get caught up in the drama of competing rights to shared parenting and that instead, you focus on agreeing arrangements for your children  with your ex partner that will best serve the children’s needs and in turn, will allow for ongoing communication between you and your ex partner and a better working  parenting relationship.

If you are unable to agree arrangements directly and you and your ex partner need help with communication, with the support of a family mediator, you may be pleasantly surprised at what you can achieve and agree on moving forwards. Why not give family mediation a go?  For more information visit the Family Mediation pages on my website.

Top Tips For A Hassle Free Divorce!

  1. Do as much of your own research on the law that affects your rights and responsibilities upon separation/divorce – with the World Wide Web at most people’s fingers tips – this should be relatively easy!
  2. Where access to the internet is limited or not available – you can get a lot free information from Law Centres, Citizens’ Advice Centres, or from other similar not for profit organisations in your locality, make sure you are clued up!!
  3. Typically, for married couples/civil partners, you will need to know  how to dissolve your marriage/civil partnership and the main factors that the Court will take into account when considering the terms of a financial settlement under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.
  4. For unmarried couples the law is more complex and will be governed by trust law principles and  the Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustee Act.
  5. When looking at children’s arrangements you will need to be familiar with Children Act 1989  and the factors that the Court will take into account when considering what arrangements will be in the best interests of your child. You can find useful guides on the cafcass website here.
  6. Know that all solicitors/legal advisors work from the same hymn sheet and are governed by same law, and so in the usual run of cases where there are simply not enough capital and/or income resources to sustain the same level of living standards that you had when you were a couple, there will be little scope for creative legal arguments as ‘needs will trump all’  in every such case.
  7. Take stock of your personal circumstances – create your own schedule of assets/liabilities/incomes/budgets to compare your  financial positions and make sure this is undertaken on an open and transparent basis with both of you having had the benefit of either considering supporting documents so that there is no doubt about the information on the schedule or you may waive the right to exchange financial information if you both have had full first-hand knowledge/access to the information and there is no doubt or concern about the same.
  8. Make sure you look after your health and emotional /psychological well-being. Going through a separation/Divorce will probably be one of your most difficult life challenges. Some separating couples have described it as ‘a living bereavement’ and have stated that it was harder to cope with than an actual bereavement of a close family member/friend. Take all the help and support that you can. Not only from family members and friends but most importantly, from other professionals who are qualified and trained to help you at this time of emotional crisis. For example, your GP maybe able to prescribe short-term medication to help with any feelings of low-esteem and he/she may refer you to a specialist Counsellor/Therapist to give you more support. Visit Relate website for more information.

Visit the legal Information Hub on my website to get started and please give serious consideration to family mediation in the even that you cannot reach your own direct agreements. This will serve you, your ex-partner and most importantly, your children well. It is the least self-destructive way of resolving family disputes and reaching resolutions, allowing you the freedom to move on to a brighter, happier and stress free future.

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