Siobhan Baillie is MP for Stroud and a former family law solicitor.
‘Parenting through separation’ is the theme of this year’s Good Divorce Week, which is a welcome opportunity to look at the current landscape for separating parents.
We thankfully find it much easier to talk about separation now, and the experiences of parents are even forming the basis of mega-musical success with Adele’s new album. It has flown off the digital shelves as people recognise and connect with the feelings, insecurities, pain and love she expresses so brilliantly through music.
Yet for all those common themes, parents who have separated during the pandemic really have had to deal with an incredibly difficult set of circumstances.
Co-parenting during lockdowns when schools, support services and courts were closed has been an emotional and logistical nightmare for many families. One in three separated parents said the restrictions that have accompanied the pandemic made it more difficult to keep co-parenting arrangements in place. A similar proportion said they had suffered more stress.
It is therefore no wonder that in the last 12 months, nearly 90,000 children were caught up in private law applications in England and Wales. That is the highest figure ever recorded and an increase of over six per cent on the previous year for parents trying to determine matters like who a child should live with or how they can divide their time between homes.
With so many people affected by separation it is important we – the Government, MPs, family lawyers and society at large – find new ways to improve the situation.
Polling carried out for Good Divorce Week by family justice organisation Resolution shows that families sadly have little faith in the current system. Similarly, the courts are dealing with significant numbers of litigants in person who are often unclear about their options and should be nowhere near a judge.
For example, of the parents surveyed, 67 per cent agreed that there was a lack of help and advice about how to put their children first when they separated. Inevitably, parents went looking for advice and the largest group turned to family and friends. Informal guidance is a vital source of support but the people who love you most are rarely equipped with the knowledge and experience an impartial legal expert can bring.
That said, only a third of separating parents turned to a solicitor or legal professional. The overwhelming majority of this group reported that legal advice was an effective strategy to help them deal with their separation but with so few obtaining professional advice, things need to change elsewhere in the system.
Caught in the middle of parents trying to move forward, children are often affected by arguing even when there are herculean efforts made to protect them. A quarter of separated parents polled said they had noticed a loss of confidence in their children. One in ten reported that their child displayed violent outbursts since the family had split. Around one in four said their child has become depressed and 14 per cent saw an increase in anti-social behaviour.
One of my jobs this week is to make sure MPs from across the House know about the new Resolution guide for parents called ‘Parenting Through Separation’. Many MPs tell me they are experiencing increased casework from separating families so the guide should help. It sets out the various options for dealing with the breakdown of a relationship and conflict. It provides guided discussion, together with information about mediation and going to court, should that be necessary.
Like Resolution, the Government is keen to keep families out of court wherever possible and I have been encouraged by recent meetings with the Lord Chancellor, Dominic Raab, other ministers, and civil servants.
Earlier this year the Ministry of Justice announced a £1m scheme offering hundreds of families a voucher to pay for mediation. That proved so successful that another £800,000 was committed to the scheme in the summer.
More than three-quarters of family cases eligible for the vouchers have used them to achieve resolutions without going to court. Agreements about children will invariably work better and last longer than court imposed orders.
Raab has indicated that he wants to see increased use of mediation and he is looking at penalties for parents who are not using court time appropriately, as requested by some members of the judiciary. I have personally thought for some time that the enforcement of existing court orders also needs to be quicker and more effective against people breaching terms. The President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane said:
“It should be a matter of concern for society in general to achieve better co-parenting between separating couples. It is thought that about 40 per cent of all separating parents bring issues about their children’s care to the Family Court for determination, rather than exercising parental responsibility and sorting problems out themselves. This figure is both startling and worrying. Where there are no issues of domestic abuse or child protection, parents ought to be able, or encouraged, to make arrangements for their own child, rather than come to a court of law and a judge resolve the issues.”
I have been urging the Ministry of Justice to look closely at proposals from distinguished groups such as the Family Solutions Group, who wrote the report ‘What About Me?’, and the Private Law Working Group, led by respected members of the judiciary. Alongside leading organisations like Resolution and charities like OnePlusOne, Tavistock and Relate, who have been gathering evidence in this field for decades. We now have shovel-ready solutions for the Government to adopt.
The long-awaited Divorce Act is due in spring 2022. I am arguing that this overhaul of divorce law should be used as an opportunity to reset the agenda for separating families, keep them out of court where safe to do so, and focus on children. To be honest, I know that ministers care about this so I do not see why we would wait any longer.