The result of enormous effort and faith, The Children Act 1991 enshrined the rights of children in family law as paramount. Yet the regulations that will come into effect on 8 April will seriously undermine all the good work and progress made to date.
For the past 20 years, thousands of dedicated, experienced family lawyers have looked after the interests of children in a world of ever-more fractious disputes between parents. It is overwhelmingly the case that in these disputes, the parties put their own selfish interests and prejudices before the interests of their children.
There is more need than ever for guidance and a degree of common sense, which can only come from good legal advice. In these cases the last thing the parties need is to confront one another at a time when emotions are at their height. With legal help (at an average cost of no more than £200 to the exchequer), most of these issues can be resolved without a court appearance. But from 8 April, the only passport to this help will be through complaints of ‘domestic violence’ endorsed by a GP.
The following points, not exhaustive, need to be made now:
1. The ‘domestic violence’ tag will result in assistance being skewed overwhelmingly in favour of women and against men. This is discriminatory and will certainly lead to challenges in the courts.
2. While automatic legal aid will be available in public law cases, the issue of fathers (and mothers) being permanently deprived of contact with their children can be no less important; and yet assistance is being denied.
3. The prospect of unrepresented parents appearing in increasing numbers in the courts is profoundly disturbing. As a former family recorder I recall with horror the spectacle of confused, angry, upset individuals floundering in a milieu they found frightening and confusing.
4. The ability to base cases of domestic violence upon often long-forgotten incidents is unjust and frankly ill thought-out.
It is now too late to alter the regulations, but perhaps not too late for reason to prevail and for legal help to be restored to all private law children disputes.
John Greenwood, retired family lawyer, Chippenham