The Damaging Impact of Inter-Party Politics

By Jane Robey – CEO, National Family Mediation

As the government continues to deliberate over whether it has confidence in, well, itself, it’s probably safe for me to assume that those of us who work with families in crisis are somewhat nervous about what the next few months have in store.

While the last few years have most certainly been tumultuous in politics – with multiple changes in leadership, and more political party comings and goings than the Love Island villa – we have at least benefitted from some progress within the family law and mediation arena.

The introduction of the Government Mediation Voucher Scheme has been irrefutably successful, and the initial measures to reduce the backlog in the family courts – including the Nightingale courts, as well as the video and remote hearings – have had a modest but notable impact.

We had even reached a point where the Justice Committee was pushing forward the need for the development of a specific action plan to improve the quality of support for separating couples and their children.

It felt, at last, as though the tide was starting to turn. While there is no denying that we were at the start of a very steep and uphill battle for change, we were at least on our way, and the government was starting to listen.

Now though, we find ourselves back in a state of uncertainty. These small steps forward have not come to a crashing halt, but the reality of the current situation is that they remain siloed. Working independently of one another in the absence of a strategic, long-term resourcing plan, while the deafening sound of interparty debates and disputes take centre stage.

Having sat in this seat for many years now, I have had the misfortune of seeing many a political upheaval and witnessed, first-hand, the rise of the latest good idea and pilot project that was destined to facilitate change, only to see it gather figurative dust in the digital archives of Westminster.

By way of an example, I was due to attend an MoJ meeting last month to discuss the potential introduction of deterrents to keep warring couples out of the courtroom unless absolutely necessary, whilst also championing alternative dispute resolution methods.

However, the meeting was postponed at the eleventh hour, one can only assume due to the fact that there were ‘bigger fish to fry’ at Downing Street.

Arguably, a question mark over who would serve as our next Secretary of State for Justice is (to those in the thick of it) more pressing than a question mark over what policies and initiatives they would back or push forward as a priority.

Meanwhile, families in crisis remain in crisis, couples in conflict remain in conflict, and the children who find themselves at the centre of the disputes, negativity and disruption become more and more impacted by the day.

In a BBC Radio interview which took place earlier this month, Sir Andrew McFarlane said around one-fifth of marriage break-ups were wrongly ending up in court with one partner suing the other. He also went as far as to say that parents are fooling themselves if they think children are unaffected.

I couldn’t agree more.

Citing a report by the Family Solutions Group, Sir McFarlane said that the family justice system was in crisis, with the numbers of parents making applications unmanageable.

While that is hardly surprising when you consider that there were more than 103,000 divorces in England and Wales in 2020, when the country’s top family judge says that too many cases are ending up in court because couples saw their issue as a legal issue, rather than a relationship issue, we know we have a problem.

On national radio, with an audience of tens of thousands tuning in, he said what many of us on the front line of family dispute resolution have known for years. That the courts are seen as the first port of call, where in fact they should be the last resort for anyone where there aren’t issues of domestic abuse or protection or safeguarding.

Historically these sorts of discussions have taken place behind closed doors, around boardroom tables, with serious men in suits deliberating over the best course of action. It would appear that so desperate now is the situation, that we no longer have the privilege of private pontification.

Indeed, Sir Andrew is proposing greater transparency and allowing greater press access to family court proceedings, in the hope of educating the public on the work of the family court and facilitating change.

His ambition reflects his estimation that around 20% of the families who come to court to have a dispute about their children resolved, would be better served by at least trying to sort it out themselves in other ways in the first instance.

As part of the interview, he went on to say that ‘research shows consistently that if you’re the child of parents who are at odds with each other, whether or not they are coming to court, that is unhealthy. It does your head in to put it in straightforward terms’.

And when pushed on the matter of whether children are harmed by what goes on in their family, he said that based on the evidence (which let’s face it, is in abundance) is yes, and that parents are fooling themselves if they say that they are not involving the children, or the children don’t know.

A harsh message for some to hear, but an important one, which highlights the necessity of the child impact assessment trial that the family courts are trialling that will provide a wake-up call to the parents as to the impact of what they are doing to their child.

That said, the Cafcass-led initiative will only be a success if the findings of the impact assessment relating to court battles is put into context with the positive impact that alternative dispute resolution methods can have.

It was particularly disappointing that Sir Andrew didn’t even mention the success of the MOJ voucher scheme, which has now delivered more than 10,000 vouchers to families in dispute, 77% of whom have reached agreement without setting foot before a Judge.

What we now need is for the government to resume its daily responsibilities as soon as possible so that we can regain momentum on the solutions that are already in place.

We need to know what the longer-term plan is for deterring families from going through the courts unnecessarily. We need clarity on what the longer-term strategy is for the Mediation Voucher Scheme. We need reassurances that the success and efficiencies of the Family Hubs will be properly assessed and reviewed.

Sadly, progress pre-Tory party implosion was already slow. Now though, we face the very real possibility that it will slip into catatonic mode and with that in mind, regardless of your political allegiances, I think we can all agree that September 5th and the next leader vote cannot come quickly enough.