UK Family Law Reform

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Contact Dispute Resolution [2003] Fam Law 455

A seminar, Early Interventions – Towards a Pilot Project, held in London in April 2003, examined ways of streamlining s 8 contact applications. Chairperson Bracewell J regretted the abiding characteristic of contact litigation, where high expenditure was often linked to low returns. She said it was time to consider ‘a different approach’ that might enable the courts to allocate time better by concentrating on those cases where judicial intervention was indispensable.

THE AMERICAN WAY

The keynote from Her Ladyship – that many long-running disputes might never get under way if there were proficient early interventions – was amplified by guest speaker Judge John Lenderman, a senior family law circuit judge from Florida. He confirmed that in Florida, as in much of the US, ‘contact is no longer an issue litigated on a frequent basis’. Judge Lenderman’s presentation, How and Why Most American States Changed to Early Interventions emphasised how their statutory requirement for frequent and continuing contact was founded on child developmental research. Children did better when both parents were kept in their lives. He described how well-publicised parenting plans – setting out the cycles of contact in the average case – meant that American parents knew what kind of order the courts were likely to make. In the absence of exceptional circumstances, there was little point in litigating.

Parents were streamed through a two-stage preliminary process. Judge Lenderman recounted how separating couples were mandated to group parent education classes, where their post-separation parenting responsibilities to their children and each other were explained. They could then agree a parenting plan and exit the system. Resistant parents were obliged to attend a single session of contact-focused mediation. More recent innovations included Florida’s standard ‘standing temporary order’, issued in every case, binding the parties to maintain contact prior to the first hearing.

Only a minority of cases, mostly involving serious issues, needed further intervention. Florida’s overall caseload was up; costs were down; enforcement was a rarity; and delay was negligible. Most disputes were resolved in a few weeks. Charting Florida’s 1990s shift to its current early-interventions mode, Judge Lenderman concluded: ‘The process really does work. It saves money and time – and emotional distress.’

THE BRITISH RESPONSE

A seminar panel consisting of three UK experts considered if the key components of an early-interventions system could be assembled in England and Wales. Their collective answer, in the affirmative, prompted Bracewell J’s closing endorsement of a pilot project to establish ‘first, if we can get better results; and second, if we can provide quicker tiMETAbling’.

Preparing the way for this conclusion, Dr Hamish Cameron, consultant child psychiatrist, said that the professional recognition that children needed two parents engendered an obvious requirement for blocks of parenting time. It made sense to inform parents what kind of contact arrangements were customary, using a prepared menu of parenting plans analogous to the American model. District judge Crichton underlined how much better it would be if the courts’ view of what should happen – which is really society’s view matching the experts’ view – was relayed to parents before they reached the stage of contested hearings. He foresaw a new partnership with the ancillary services. Two interlocking elements were involved. The court and associated professional services would each play their part in a revised procedure, where professional services solved most cases before they reached court, guiding parents towards timely parenting plans.

THE WAY FORWARD

The question of how this would be done was dealt with by barrister Caroline Willbourne. Three of the agencies primarily concerned – educators, mediators and CAFCASS – had been canvassed for, and given support to, the system. A half-day ‘parenting class’ could be devised and staffed; mediators could be co-opted; and the relevant paperwork generated.

The requirement for funding was modest. During the ensuing plenary discussion, a proposal for a 1-year pilot project attracted support from those present. The creation of a steering committee, to translate informed interest into active planning, was mooted as the logical next step. One of the committee’s tasks would be to designate the pilot court: at the seminar, the Inner London Family Proceedings Court offered its services, drawing attention to the need to create court-based infrastructure. Developments required were:

• parenting information for distribution by the court
• equivalent of Florida’s ‘standing temporary order’
• a one- or two-session parenting class
• contact-focused mediators
• assents, implementation, outcome/cost research

Recent discussions with professionals suggested that the mediators required were to hand. Initial dialogue with the Institute of Family Therapy had explored the staffing of a 3-hr parenting class, perhaps operating weekly. Judge Lenderman offered to make the workings of Florida’s family courts available as an example. CAFCASS, the SFLA and FLBA were said to be ‘on board’. As for the steering committee, the need was not so much for an open-ended inquiry into what to do, but rather the more proactive task of ensuring that an early-interventions trial – where court education and mediation worked together – actually occurred. Final responsibility lay with the courts. The impetus for the seminar derived from judicial re-evaluation of the needs of court users; ongoing judicial direction provided the key to change.

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