Friday 9 March 2007 10:58 Department for Constitutional Affairs (National)
Parents urged to consider welfare of children before going to the family courts
Divorced and separated parents who go to court to settle disputes risk making matters worse for their children.
Family Justice Minister Harriet Harman told the 4Children Annual Conference that children can be badly affected seeing their parents going to court to argue over their future.
In 2005 around 70,000 children were the subject of dispute between their parents where the case did not include any allegations of harm to children. These are cases that did not need to be heard by a court.
Family Justice Minister Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP QC said:
"When arguing parents come before a court, the court's decision will be made in the child's best interest. But it is even better for the child for the parents not to have to go to court in the first place. 70,000 children every year should not have to experience their parents battle over their future.
"It is difficult enough for parents when a relationship breaks down. It is even more difficult to agree the future of their children's welfare while they are doing it. It is to the credit of 90% of separating parents that they can make an agreement without resorting to court. The focus of the family justice system should be on encouraging parents to agree themselves, instead of asking a court to make decisions for them.
"We know court is not the best place for children to settle these disputes. But when cases do come to court it is important that the process works for children and parents.
"Agreement is better for the children involved. Contact arrangements reached by agreement rather than court orders are more likely to endure and work smoothly."
When relationships breakdown, it is important that wherever possible court battles are avoided, as it is usually much better for children that families reach agreements themselves. This saves children from experiencing their parents 'doing battle', testing their love and loyalty to both parents and the feeling that they have to side with one parent or the other.
Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that applications for court orders tend to fuel conflict rather than resolve it.
The Government wants to ensure that early intervention, along with better engagement of parents and children in the process, is the norm. Where it is safe and appropriate to do so, cases should be resolved without needing to come to court.
In order to achieve this, the Government will be working on the following:
* Do more to provide information and guidance and to support mediation - including getting parents early access to information and advice through the DFES guide for Separating Parents. We have already launched the Family Mediation Helpline with over 1000 referrals to mediators as a result.
* Where people receive legal aid they are already asked if they have considered mediation. People applying for contact with a child after the break up of a relationship will be told of the need to consider mediation and will be told that the court will consider whether parents have tried mediation.
* Consider the pilot of Family Group Conferencing where families are encouraged to decide who children will live with and what contact arrangements should be following divorce or separation
* If parents do come to court, the Children and Family Court Advice and Support Service will be providing an in-court conciliation service. Research shows that three quarters of parents using in-court conciliation resolve some or all of their disagreements.
* Look at ways to support families to reach agreement on maintenance payments themselves as set out in the DWP proposals to reform the Child Support Agency
The Government invests £14 million a year in family mediation and the number of couples receiving publicly funded mediation has gone up from 400 in 1997 to 14,000. The family justice system now has as one of its objectives not just judging between warring parents, but also encouraging separating parents to work out the finances and the arrangements for the children amicably.
Mediation helps - even if it cannot help a relationship survive it can smooth the path for a less acrimonious break-up. Evaluation shows that 61% of the total number of family mediations was successful. Only about 13% of the cases ended up back in court. Compared to court proceedings, mediation can be faster, cheaper and less adversarial.
Notes for Editors
1. Harriet Harman was speaking at the conference "Creating opportunities, Building Futures" at the QEII Conference Centre in London on Friday 9 March. The conference is organised by the charity 4Children. http://www.4children.org.uk
2. The Legal Services Commission (or LSC, the body which looks after the provision of legal aid in England and Wales) tells us that in cases where one or both parties are publicly funded (i.e. they receive legal aid) and the parties go to mediation, 60% result in full or partial agreements. Only about 13% return to court following the agreement. The number of couples receiving publicly funded mediation has gone up from 400 in 1997-98 to 14,000 in 2005-06 and through the Legal Services Commission we now invest £14 million a year in family mediation - up from around £500,000 in 1997.
3. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation research can be found at http://www.jrf.org.uk/pressroom/releases/301002.asp