In November 2020, the Family Solutions Group’s (FSG’s) report titled ‘What about me? Reframing Support for Families following Parental Separation’ was published.
With a firm message that ‘The ‘Family Justice System’ is in crisis’, the report sets out the inadequacies in the current system.
In particular, it highlights the need for a more child-focused justice system, where the voices of children following a parental separation can be heard – hence the title of the report.
This blog will look at the key issues raised by the report and will explore some of the recommendations made by the FSG to improve the current system.
Who are the Family Solutions Group?
The Family Solutions Group are a multidisciplinary group of individuals who are highly experienced in working with separated families both in and outside of court. The group includes mediators, solicitors, family therapists and academics, along with professionals from other relevant fields such experts in cases of domestic abuse.
The impact of separation on children
The impact of parental separation on children cannot be ignored – many children will subsequently suffer long-term mental health issues, and some may lose a close relationship with one of their parents. The research is clear that ‘destructive inter-parental conflict affects children of all ages, across infancy, childhood, adolescence, and even adulthood’.
The problems with the current system
At the heart of the Children Act 1989 lies the principle that the welfare of the child is of paramount importance. However, the report provides that ‘thirty years on, the inspiring principles underpinning the Act have yet to be fully realised’.
One of the most important concerns raised by the FSG is the current lack of support services available to children throughout the separation process. As such, the voice of the child is often ignored and children are denied any influence over decisions that will have a monumental impact on their lives. This can result in harmful effects, as the FSG explains that:
‘Some children will be at risk; with decisions made that contact should take place against the wishes of the child and in circumstances where abuse is alleged. Others will be rendered extremely unhappy – not least by losing contact with friends and extended family and perhaps siblings who have been important to them.’
The recommendations made by the FSG include the following:
- Support framework – there needs to be a framework of ‘direct support services of information, consultation, support and representation for children and young people whose parents separate’. This is the core recommendation of the FSG.
- Safeguarding –the FSG recommends that ‘there be an urgent review of arrangements for hearing children’s voices and protecting the welfare of children who are living or who have lived in violent households.’
- Presumption to be heard – the FSG calls for a presumption that ‘all children and young people aged 10 and above be offered the opportunity to have their voices heard directly in all processes for resolving issues between parents including mediation and solicitor-led processes’
- Professional duty – ‘those conducting processes such as solicitor negotiation, collaborative law and arbitration must ensure that children are offered a process for their voice to be heard by a suitably trained professional (unless there are agreed upon contraindications)’.
- Child Inclusive mediation (CIM) – in order to increase the number of CIMs, mediators should report on the number of CIMs carried out annually. They should also explain why, in cases involving children below the age of 10, the mediator decided CIM wasn’t appropriate.
Significance of the report
Although the report does not have legislative force, the recommendations will hopefully lead to significant improvements for the family justice system. In any case, the message of the report is clear – children need to be supported throughout parental breakdown. This message should be taken on board by both by parents and practitioners immediately.
What does the Court expect from parents?
Parents should be mindful that the Court will expect parents to listen to their children and to prioritise their children’s needs from the outset of parental separation. After all, the FSG reports that ‘giving children a voice can lead to more durable agreements; improved parental alliances; better father-child relationships and more cooperative co-parenting’.
Some cases will inevitably require assistance from inside the Family Court room, for instance when there are allegations of domestic abuse. However, in absence of these complications, parents should act cooperatively and try to reach an amicable agreement between themselves. If this can be achieved, the long-term detrimental impacts experienced by children in the course of parental separation can be minimised.
How can we help?
Our team of experienced lawyers and mediators can work with you to ensure that your children are prioritised throughout the separation process. Please contact us for a confidential conversation with one of our specialists.
Rosa Schofield is a Family Law Solicitor based in our office in London.