Another Busy Year for the Family Courts Unions Parliamentary Group

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The Family Courts Unions Parliamentary Group (FCUPG) comprises over 20 MPS on a cross party basis, co-chaired by ELfyn LLwyd MP. The group was formed in 2006 to support the work of those employed in the Family Justice System and to campaign for issues affecting members and those that they represent or seek to help.

Another Busy Year for the Family Courts Unions Parliamentary Group
The group meet every two months whilst parliament is sitting with officers from NAPO - the union for Probation and CAFCASS officers, PCS - the union representing Court staff and Solicitors from the Family Law Department at Simpson Millar inviting Ministers and other prominent figures in the Family Justice System to attend meetings to answer questions and share information.

The first few months of 2014 were busy for the FCUGP as it was the build up to an event hosted on the 1st April 2014 to highlight the impact of Legal Aid cuts on family justice one year on. All FCUPG member organisations worked tirelessly to produce an insightful pamphlet for the event, which included numerous anonymised case studies from across the family justice spectrum as well as information of the impact being felt daily on the front line by Court staff, Solicitors and those working with vulnerable children and families. Any early day motion was tabled in advance of the event to draw further attention to the group and its efforts to highlight the significant of the 1st April, as well as the whirring impact the cuts continue to have on family justice.

The event was hugely successful with over 60 people attending. There were speeches by the former Education Minister, Tim Lawton MP, as well as Baroness Scotland and ELfyn Llwyd MP who chaired proceedings. There were also speakers from the NAPO Family Court Section, PCS and Emma Hopkins Jones and Emma Pearmaine of Simpson Millar.

Tim Lawton MP took some criticism from the floor, but he agreed with regards to the devastating impact the cuts have had and continue to have from the most vulnerable families in society and stated he was unaware of the very strict application of the Rules relating to exceptional case funding which had resulted in just 8 applications for PCS being granted for family law cases out of 670 total applications between 1st April and 31st December 2013.

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament
What became apparent from the 1st April event was the lack of clear collated evidence from the government a year on from the implementation of the cuts – a worrying fact that the FCUPG has tried to rectify during the course of the past year by asking a number of parliamentary questions.

At a subsequent meeting of the FCUPG in June 2014, Channel 4 were invited to attend as they were wishing to hear front line accounts of the impact of the cuts as the Government were yet to publish any findings. All FCUPG member organisations agreed to work closely with Channel 4 to continue to highlight these issues and a system where possible in broadcasts highlighting these issues. The Family Law Department at Simpson Millar was able to provide anonymised case studies from organisations we work closely with across the country who support victims of domestic abuse, giving examples of where they had not been able to meet the strict criteria of eligibility for Legal Aid funding – perhaps because they had not pressed charges or because the last incident was over 2 years – and the devastating impact that had on their lives, including in some cases meaning they had stayed with or returned to an abusive partner. Over the past 6 months of 2014, the media does seem to have caught onto these issues and there have been a number of articles in newspapers from across the political spectrum.

There were also extensive discussions regarding the increase in litigants in person and the effects on the effective operative of the family justice system that was having as seen by CAFCASS Officers, Legal Advisers in the Magistrates Court, Court staff and Solicitors all working with the Court staff.

At the next meeting of the FCUPG in September 2014, Sir Anthony Douglas – CEO of CAFCASS - was invited to attend. CAFCASS have been collecting data regarding the impact of the increase in litigants in person and the additional costs and delay this can cause in proceedings. CAFCASS statistics for December 2013 showed that in more than half of private law applications relating to children, just one party was represented by a Solicitor, with neither party instructing a Solicitor in 42% of cases - this figure has risen since to nearer 60%. Sir Anthony commented that while Judges once had 8 or 9 cases listed to hear in a day, lengthier hearings due to lack of legal representation for one or both parties had reduced the number of cases a Judge could deal with to between 3 and 6. Sir Anthony commented that the drop in private law applications, in relation to children, which are down by at least a quarter, means that CAFCASS is able to look at new ways to support families and is establishing an out of Court pathway. To this end a pilot enabling CAFCASS to part the Local Authorities and no for profit providers to support families with Local Community Services has been approved by the President of the Family Division and Simon Hughes MP and will be rolled out over the coming months.

At the last meeting of the FCUPG in November, Elizabeth Coe, chair of the National Association of Child Contact Centres was invited to attend the meeting to chair her concerns at the impact of Legal Aid cuts on referrals to Child Contact Centres. Ms Coe produced information showing that the total referrals to supervised Child Contact Centres are down 23% in 2014, as compared to the previous years and total referrals to supported Child Contact Centres are down 29% for the same period. When combined with the statistics released by CAFCASS showing private law applications are down by 25% and information from Lawyers supported mediation finding that publically funded mediation for private family law had seen a drop of 36% since the introduction of LASBO. There is clearly a worrying overall reduction of between 25% and 35% of families accessing means to help and resolve disputes. Elizabeth Coe told the group it is extremely unlikely that a miracle has occurred and parents are no longer separating and sorting out their own problems. More likely it is that there are parents who are walking away from their children as they do not feel able to act for themselves, there are people continuing to live in conflicted and sometimes abusive relationships because they cannot afford to separate, meaning children are exposed to conflict and violence and that unsafe contact is taking place and putting children at risk.

The group also discussed the rise of the litigant in person and the evolution of the McKenzie Friend. Following that meeting it was announced that the society of professional Mckenzie Friends were formed earlier in 2013, would insist that members are ensured and meet minimum standards of qualification and experience, although members of the organisation is voluntary. This is clear and real and a growing threat to the work of experienced and fully qualified Family Lawyers.

A great success for the group, and in particular the Co-Chair Elfyn LLwyd MP, came at the end of November when the Government agreed to adopt the bill he had introduced to Parliament back in February to bring coercive control into the legal definition of domestic violence making it illegal to exercise coercive control over their partner for the first time. Legislation to bring this into effect is expected in the New Year.

These are the issues that members of the FCUPG, including the Family Law Department at Simpson Millar, will continue to highlight by inviting Ministers to attend meetings to answer questions, tabling Early Day Motions and Parliamentary Questions during 2015.

Emma Hopkins Jones is an Associate Solicitor with Simpson Millar LLP

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