Mediation and Family Hubs
Sukhdeep Dhillon For Avadis & Co. Solicitors
With the government in the process of preparing budgets cuts of 25% and 40% within various departments, what does the future really hold in the sphere of family law?
It’s fair to state that while the government wishes for people to pursue mediation where possible (rather than further congesting family courts), there will be no more money for its promotion to supplement the amount spent on a campaign earlier on this year. With the spending review of the current government set for the end of this month, expectations in the family law department remain low. In other words, nobody expects a radical rejuvenation of legal aid.
The silence of ministers strongly suggests that we won’t be seeing any more ‘help-ups’ in the vein of the ‘free single mediation sessions’ brought in by the previous government. As the budget cuts get under way, it seems all too clear that there will be no more government money for the regulation of family mediators either. This is regardless of the introduction of a new accreditation scheme which is set to affect each professional mediator across England and Wales. With such shortage of money, the family law department will be hit the hardest.
Despite the government’s prepared budget cuts, the ‘family hub’ model proposed by the Centre for Social Justice should be taken into serious consideration. The concept follows the successful implementation of Sure Start Children’s Centres which can give help and advice on child/family health, parenting, money, training and employment. Similarly, family hubs would also be community-based locations, providing access to families to a range of vital services which could prove particularly effective in areas where a degree of stability is needed in families.
At present, family breakdown costs the economy and the taxpayer an estimated £46 billion per year with individual family court cases costing the taxpayer £1,618 per day in staff costs. From analysing these figures alone, it is evident that current approaches to managing family breakdown are not effective for either the children/parents affected or for the taxpayers.
As a result, family hubs would allow for a parent to get information about all issues that affect their family’s well-being from ante- and post-natal services, through to assistance with childcare, employment, financial advice, relationship support and the vital support that is needed when a family breaks down.
Due to the recent cuts in legal aid, there has been an increased demand for advice from separating families who lack the resources to research their options on mediation and financial matters. The government can help combat these issues through the implementation of family hubs; however whether they are prepared to adopt different approaches to managing family breakdowns is the current question on everyone’s minds.
At Avadis & Co. our family law solicitors encourage parents to come to agreements either through negotiation or mediation arrangements that are child focused and practical for all those concerned.
Maladministration of Section 20 of the Children Act 1989
Phillip O’Sullivan For Avadis & Co. Solicitors
Section twenty of the Children Act 1989 is designed to be a safety net for children without a safe place to live. The first part of the act lays out that if a child has no one who is responsible for them, they have been abandoned, or those responsible for them are unable to care for them or provide accommodation, then the local authority has to provide accommodation for the child. On the face of it, this seems like it couldn’t be simpler, and that this section simply protects children that need protecting.
As the act continues, it states that in some situations, where the child’s welfare comes into question, the local authority may provide accommodation, even where they have a person with parental responsibility who is able to give them a place to live. It’s here that things become more complicated.
This arrangement is supposed to be a voluntary and temporary solution which sees the local authority place the child in accommodation while the person who has responsibility for them is investigated. The aim of this is for the local authority and the child’s carer to be working in co-operation, in the best interest of the child, and to place the child temporarily in accommodation away from the person who is responsible for them, while it is decided whether the child will be returned home, or if proceedings will be commenced to remove the child permanently. However, case law and judicial commentary would suggest that in some cases, this mechanism is misused; leaving parents and children powerless against a mismanaged process that can sometimes stretch on for years.
It is in this aspect of the procedure that local authorities are falling short, some parents have reported feeling that this arrangement was not presented to them as voluntary at all, and that if they did not consent, then proceedings would be initiated to take their child from them permanently. While the position of local authorities on this can perhaps be understood, it is not in the spirit of this section of the Act to pry children from their parents without fully informed consent, as the act clearly states that a person with parental responsibility may remove the child from a s.20 accommodation at any time. But if parents feel that their children will be taken from them permanently if they refuse, can this be said to be voluntary at all?
Further criticism of section twenty has been expressed by judges considering its effects in cases in which it has been misused. In one case, a child had been held in a section 20 accommodation for two years. In these extreme situations, it has to be questioned just how much damage this arrangement could potentially have on a child’s development. It is in situations such as this where it can be seen how powerless parents are in the face of this supposedly ‘temporary’ and ‘voluntary’ arrangement.
Senior Judge James Munby has stated that this section is open to the “misuse and abuse” and that if local authorities use section 20 without being able to defend their reasoning behind it, they will be opening themselves up to “stringent criticism and possible exposure to successful claims for damages.” He went on further to say that misuse of section 20 is “not just a matter of bad practice” but a “denial of the fundamental rights of both the parent and child.”
Properly administered, section 20 has an important role to play in the protection of children, as a short term measure in the lead up to care proceedings, but in the face of potentially forceful tactics on the part of local authorities, and maladministration once the child is in section 20 accommodation, it is important to know the normal procedure, and what your rights are where your children are concerned. At Avadis & Co, we have the knowledge and experience to inform you of your rights and to guide you through what can be a very difficult process.