Tag Archives: The Children and Families Act

Voice of the Child

Simon Hughes in his speech to the Family Justice Young People’s Board “Voice of the Child” conference in July 2014, made a commitment to providing children over 10 with the opportunity to be heard in family proceedings. He stated that there will be a dialogue with the family mediation profession about how we make sure that the voice of the child and young person becomes a central part of the process of family mediation. He accepted that it cannot be right that parents mediate an agreement affecting their child or children and then ask the court to make the agreement into a binding order in the absence of the children’s voice being heard.

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Children’s voices are often not heard or listened to in the process of separation. In the court process children’s views are often interpreted by adults, with the best of intentions. If parents are able to hear their children’s views directly it can have a profound effect on their approach to finding solutions.

Research has shown that being listened to and heard is much more important to children and young people than actually getting what they want.

A new website has just recently been launched that aims to give children and young people a voice. Kids in the Middle provides help and support to young people aged between 11 and 18 when their families separate. Young people spend a great deal of time on line and on social media. The Kids in the Middle website is an ideal platform for the provision of information and a place young people will feel at home.

Kids in the Middle is a registered charity backed by young people and by family law and mediation firms. Much of the money used to set up the website was raised by young people themselves. On the website young people in separating families can hear the stories of their peers. It is so important that they know they are not alone. The website is by young people for young people. It gives them a voice and shows parents what their children are really thinking and feeling. There are helpful videos on the site and users can upload blogs and videos. Kids in the Middle provides a peer mentoring and counselling service to help improve emotional well being and resilience and to help young people develop positive coping strategies. There are three levels of support: self-help, advice and support and counselling.

Focus Mediators recommend the site to any parents with children aged 11 and over. Kids in the Middle hope to be able to extend the age range to younger children in due course. This is a fantastic resource and we hope it will be able to help many young people who currently feel as though they don’t have a voice in the process of separation.

Focus Mediation has been committed to listening to children where appropriate for many years, long before it became fashionable. Most of our family mediators are trained and CRB checked to consult with children to establish their wishes and feelings, so they can help inform parental decision-making.

CONTACT FOCUS MEDIATION

Bloody mindedness

When people are hurt, they often like to hurt back.

An eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth and all that. If s/he left me to go off with that bastard/bitch, they must suffer for it. They will suffer, I’ll make sure of it, even if I lose out too, it will be worth it!  Does anyone ever say that in mediation? Rarely if ever, but they may think it and take up inexplicable negotiating positions or prolong arguments over nothing. They can be very bloody minded over sorting the simplest things out. There are reasons for this, such as they cannot let go of the relationship, cannot leave the connection with their ex, they are desperate to ‘win’ so have to keep fighting, they want to have the ‘last word’ and/or their fury fuels the conflict and then the conflict finds an outlet in:

  • Quarrelsome solicitors’ letters setting out endless arguments about anything and everything, much of may be it immaterial to settling the important issues like who gets the house or is it sold, what happens about pensions and the maintenance? If people fight over silly things you know you are in trouble, so the food mixer or kettle is an indication they are dredging the bottom of the barrel and this is caused by their feelings, not the importance of the bottom of the barrel.
  • Putting forward extremely unfair positions that would make the other person lose out massively (punishment, ‘make them suffer’)
  • And worst of all, arguing through the children, using them as weapons and instruments of revenge, getting them ‘onside’ and trying to turn them against their other parent.
"Divorce Your Loved One With Dignity" Bob Willoughby © , Frank Sinatra, on the Warner Brothers set of Marriage On The Rocks, 1965

Bob Willoughby © Frank Sinatra, on the Warner Brothers set of Marriage On The Rocks, 1965

On the surface you have an argument, often translated into a legal narrative of this statute and these cases, versus a countering position and cases. That is the lawyers’ attempts to try and reduce the fighting into something logical, with rational arguments that can be explained and reasoned. Mostly the parties don’t give a damn about all that, what they mind about is getting back at the bastard/ bitch who has ruined their life. This isn’t every case by any means, but it is common enough to be classified as a type of case I think of as ‘Bloodymindedness’.

If you know someone who has embarked on a divorce in this manner and you really care about them, you won’t simply listen to their rantings, you’ll gently question some of their statements and turn some of their thoughts on their head. For example, you might ask what the costs of fighting have been so far and talk about the type of holiday, car or suchlike they could have bought for that instead. If they blame it all on the other person, you might ask them what they did to try to change the dynamic. If they have tried, and many will have done, you might observe it is very difficult to get two warring people to make peace simultaneously, as they often both try, but at different times and get a bad response.

The beauty of mediating your settlement, arrangements for the children, divorce, whatever, is you go off from your first session together with a shared action-plan and joint commitment to changing boundaries and behaving differently. You can develop functional separated boundaries, with some rules you put in place about what ever is causing difficulty. Solicitors’ letters will not accomplish that. Mediation can turn things around and put you on a better path, people need to understand about that possibility, because it is game changing, and thank goodness for it.

Think of it as an escape hatch from misery for families who are splitting up.

The Children and Families Act 2014 – Family Law is Changing

Heralded as the biggest change to the family law system in a generation, will today’s changes to the family legal system make any difference to real families? Certainly, shortening the time taken   for important cases about children in care to be decided by the courts will be a big improvement.  Children caught up in the care system were previously waiting over a year for their cases to be decided, which is far too long and very bad for those children’s happiness and life chances. The new time limit for a decision will be six months, a great improvement.

 

However, what about the majority of the families needing help sorting things out? For most families some of the changes are more apparent than real. Arguments over arrangements for the children are not likely to improve because people are supposed to avoid the words ‘residence’ and ‘contact’, just as they didn’t change when we swapped the words ‘custody’ and ‘access’ for ‘residence’ and ‘contact’. The issue of who the children live with when is still a thorny one and changing the words to ‘child arrangements’ makes little difference. Other than that, there is a change to a theoretical single family court, but again, this means that cases can be allocated to the county court where there are professional judges or the magistrates where there are lay (but trained) magistrates – but both will now be called the “Family Court”.  Will this make a huge material difference to court users given the decision-makers and buildings will be the same as before the name changed to “Family Court” remains to be seen!  There will still be the High Court for cases needed high court adjudication.  Some cases that would previously have been decided by a judge may be heard by a magistrate – but it will all be the “Family Court” so that’s all right then!

 

People who can afford it may feel increasingly inclined to pay for private adjudication by a family law expert in the field, to ensure the quality of the decision – this is called arbitration and might produce a dual system of private justice completely outside the state court system. It would save government money, but create a dual system for the haves and have-nots. There could be an issue over the quality of the decisions and interpretation of the law, if many complex and difficult cases are decided by non family law experts.

 

Against this background family mediation looks like a very sane and sensible option.  An experienced, qualified mediator helps a couple to make their own arrangements for their children and settle their own financial settlement.  The impartial mediator gives relevant legal information to help decision-making and the couple know what they are agreeing to. It is a fast affordable alternative to the vagaries of the court system and at least now people have to hear about mediation properly from a mediator.  Couples share the cost of the mediator and pay nothing if they qualify for legal aid, whereas there is no legal aid for most family law work any more, there is for family mediation. If couples don’t mediate they have to pay the whole costs of their separate lawyers, instead of share the cost of their mediation.  Before anyone can bring a court application they will mostly now have to hear about mediation before they can apply to court. This last change is one of the most sensible changes the new Act brings in and it is long overdue. Court fees are expensive and rising –  pointless if unnecessary. People will now be given a real choice and awareness of the options for sorting out their settlement and arrangements without using the conventional legal and court route. Mediation is the prime alternative and mediators can now explain it to couples properly, instead of people assuming it’s unsuitable for them or not even realising it exists and that legal aid still exists to help them mediate.

 

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The Children and Families Act comes into force on 22nd of April 2014

For the first time it requires would be applicants to court to hear about mediation and how it might be able to help them, before making their court application. This simply gives them a choice of court or mediation before they embark on the court route. As such it is a useful intervention. This meeting is fast becoming known as a ‘mediation awareness meeting’ – its formal name is the Mediation Intake Assessment Meeting or MIAM.  A qualified mediator will simply tell couples about mediation and the alternatives to court adjudication.
This is greatly needed, as put simply, if mediators don’t tell people about how mediation may help them, mostly people do not understand it and don’t try mediation. Before the compulsory referral to hear about mediation from a mediator in 1999, there were only a few hundred mediations a year. After legal aid applicants had to hear about mediation from a mediator in 1999, this rose to about 13,500 mediations a year and it has stayed about the same every year until last May, when all compulsory referrals to a mediator for mediation assessment stopped along with the abolition of legal aid for family cases. Then couples unaware of mediation simply went straight to court and the number of court applications has increased massively everywhere, with many fewer mediations taking place. The fact is, in many cases lawyers do not sell mediation; they are more likely to sell legal services and to negotiate the case in a conventional positional way. This increase in adversarial resolution is bad for families, turning them into opponents in what is often an expensive, long drawn out ping pong of letters and or court hearings.

 

Compulsory mediation awareness meetings do not mean compulsory mediation, but many people will choose to go on to mediate and save themselves and their families a great deal of time, money and avoidable stress. If some family lawyers don’t like it, and it is only some lawyers, we have to ask why are they so worried about people simply hearing what mediation has to offer? These people don’t have to mediate and no one is saying people should not hear about legal resolution methods. If people need to go to court, they can still go to court, if they want lawyers to write letters then they can pay for that, but a tiny proportion of cases do actually get decided by a judge, so deciding them even earlier in mediation seems like a good idea to most people.

 

The reality is that in most disputes over children, the worst thing that can happen to a family is a brutal fight over the children, replete with welfare reports, adversarial arguments and adjudication or shuttle diplomacy between lawyers at court, cobbling something together under immense pressure and making that into an order. A series of mediation sessions over a few weeks or months with changes being introduced and reviewed, improvements made and children’s views taken on board where possible, is just so much better for most families.

 

Where property and finance issues are concerned, mediation has a massively important role to play in resolving settlements fast and at proportionate cost. How much do you think should be spent on legal fees for resolving a financial settlement on divorce? Should it be 10% or 20% or some other proportion of the overall value of the family pot?  This is the thorny problem the courts are not addressing. There is a court rule that the legal costs must be proportionate to the value of a dispute. This is universally ignored, as it seems to convey no meaning to the judges or the legal representatives. It is common for the costs to be a third or half or even more of the value of the dispute – where is the sense in that? If you bear in mind that in most family cases, unless it’s a very short marriage or there’s a pre-nup., there is a starting point or yardstick of equal division of the assets, then the value of the dispute is probably no more than between 10% to 25% of the overall pot. Legal costs frequently exceed 10% to 25% of the value of the family pot. How can that to be regarded as proportionate to the value of the dispute? It isn’t proportionate at all.

 

So, in a nutshell, the changes with regard to compulsory mediation assessment meetings brought in by the Children and Families Act are mostly welcome and long overdue.  Compulsory mediation meetings before court applications can be made will enable a significant number of families to avoid court proceedings and expensive legal costs by choosing mediation, once they know how it can help them. Previously they often simply issued proceedings and the legal route was the default option. Now a real choice is being offered and it is up to mediators and lawyers alike to help couples make the best choice for their family, taking into account everything relevant to the family.  It is the couple that matters most and finding the best way forward for them, not what matters to the lawyer or the mediator – each trying to sell the service they prefer to sell. The family is at the heart of separation and divorce, how they sort out their arrangements, which process they use should be an informed decision they take and the advent of mediation assessment will help ensure public awareness of mediation when they need it most.  This is needed simply because without it as we have seen, people do not know about mediation or find out about it until it is too late.  There has to be a compulsory  mediation awareness stage  as once people have started going down the court route, mediation referral can be a bit late for many of them to gain the most benefit in terms of the expense, stress and delays of court proceedings.