Child Protection – where’s it headed?

Interesting. In the Reporting and Acting on Child Abuse and Neglect consultation it is claimed that ‘this Government is leading work to make improvements across every area of the child protection system.’

Yet we have the Children and Social Work Bill, currently being debated, which proposes to allow Local Authorities to opt out of their current statutory duties as embedded in our child protection legislation.

So presumably that means that, should it become law, the legislation around what happens when a young people is taken in to care and is living in the care system can be ignored. Worrying when it is widely known that children in care underachieve on every level and are significantly more likely to enter the criminal justice system.

At the moment, the Local Authority, during decision making, has a duty to consider the wishes and feelings of the child in care. There are rules around how often he/she should be seen by a social worker. There are rules around planning and review of the child’s situation. For example, every six months, there should be a review of a child in care’s care plan ie his or her placement, physical and therapeutic needs, schooling, contact with siblings, physical and mental health needs etc. This is chaired by a person independent of social services and provides a safety net in ensuring the child’s needs are being met. As importantly, it provides for accountability and a mechanism in ensuring that the child in care’s voice is being heard. By being exempt from legislation, these and numerous other issues could negatively impact on the child.

The idea behind the Bill is that this opting-out will allow innovation and will cut back on bureaucracy and that may well be right in part. However, with a massive increase in care proceedings and the likely resulting increasing care population, it is crucial that certain fundamental rights, such as the right to be consulted and heard, should be consistent and present for every child in care regardless of how services are delivered.

Women Human Rights Defenders – Unsung Heroes

It seems appropriate, during the month that marked International Women’s Day (Tuesday 8th March), to have a think about all those women out there who, through their everyday actions, are amazingly brave.

Some call them, quite rightly, ‘Women Human Rights Defenders.’ I’d call them gutsy, intelligent and inspirational.

What I’m talking about is women like Dina Meza, a journalist from Honduras. Like me, she is a mother of three. Like me she writes. Like me she is middle-age- ish. But unlike me as I sit at my desk and, with growing irritation, watch the rabbits eat my plants, Ms Meza faces harassment, threats and intimidation as she goes about her working day. Standing up to oppressive regimes, fighting for freedom of expression and justice, calling for an end to impunity for serious crimes like rape, women like Dina Meza, put themselves at risk on a daily basis in their efforts to do the right thing.

Another example, Sara Mendez from Mexico. She is striving for justice for a large indigenous community who are fighting to maintain the right to live and work on their ancestral land now threatened by major investment projects. She frequently receives death threats for her work.

Very recently Berta Caceres, a Honduran activist, who led a movement to stop a dam being built without consulting the indigenous population, was murdered.

Women Human Rights Defenders need protection. Plus there needs to be more awareness of the courageous work they do. Organisations, such as Peace Brigades International (‘PBI’), are attempting to do just this. In various parts of the world PBI are helping ‘human rights defenders,’ who can be anyone from women’s groups, indigenous communities and lawyers, protect and promote the human rights of others. PBI volunteers accompany human rights defenders as they go about their work. The visibility this then affords, provides the human rights defenders with an element of protection that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Take a look.

It would be great if somehow women in the UK could, especially after last weeks focus on International Women’s Day, show our respect for and solidarity with these women by supporting campaigns such as that of PBI.


Divorce and financial orders years later

Only yesterday with my family lawyer head on I had conversation, along these lines, with, let’s call her, Shelley.

Shelley:           Look Liz, I just want to be divorced.

Me:                  I can understand that.

Shelley:           We’ve been apart 6 years now, I’ve got a new home, new life. And he’s still a twat.

Me:                  Ok. But if you apply for Decree Absolute now without sorting out finances, one of you may be able to claim against the other later on. For example, what about if you win the lottery without getting an order now in full and final settlement of your financial claims? He could just stick in an application and you’d have to make full disclosure of all your finances, including your lottery money.

Shelley:           He’s too stupid for that. Really Liz. He really is.

Me:                  But, if you sort it out now you could get a Clean Break Consent Order which means financial claims are settled for good and you both go your separate ways without either of you having to look over your shoulder.

Shelley:           Yeah and how much is that going to cost?

Me:                  Well as you know, there’s no legal aid now due to government cuts and/

Shelley:           Quite and to be honest, I can’t pay legal fees and he certainly won’t so it’s a non-brainer. I’ll get my divorce and leave it at that.

It’s true, because of cost and the number of people now representing themselves in the divorce courts after the abolition of legal aid, it’s entirely understandable that couples, where there is seemingly little of real value to argue over, will just opt to ignore the issues of finances on divorce.

And it would seem that’s precisely what happened in the recently reported case where cash-strapped Ms Wyatt, some 20 years after divorce, made a financial claim against her ex-husband, Mr Vince, now a multi-millionaire. The case made it’s way to the Supreme Court, after the Court of Appeal stated Wyatt’s application was lodged too late. The Supreme Court however decided otherwise and said her application for financial order should be allowed.

This doesn’t mean that 20 years after divorce, Wyatt will automatically get hold of a chunk of Vince’s vast post-divorce-accumulated fortune. But it does mean that the court, on looking at all the factors it usually takes into account when making financial awards, will at least consider Wyatt’s claim. Wyatt was apparently after around £1.9 million. My guess is she will get a nothing like that. But the principle is now out there.

So how to avoid this? It’s easy. After Decree Nisi and before Decree Absolute the parties enter into a Consent Order finalising all financial claims. Maybe at the time Wyatt and Vince both took the apathetic approach. But I expect Vince, for sure, is kicking himself now.

Ripping out the heart of the family justice system

When talking about the new “parental involvement provisions” Justice Minister Simon Hughes said:

“We have made bold reforms so that the welfare of children is at the heart of the family justice system.”

Bless him.

The concept is fine, good even. That is, that as from 22nd October, the family courts will presume, unless it is likely to cause harm, that both parents will play a role in their child’s life.

But what isn’t remotely right, is the bizarre suggestion that the Governments reforms are placing children at the centre of the family justice system. Children are far from the centre. They are, at best, standing on the sidelines, screaming in an effort to get heard, whilst everyone else on the pitch pursues their own agenda’s. It’s a bit like watching the England squad bail out of yet another world cup qualifier.

Children are a long way from the centre of the family justice system. Following the Governments legal aid cuts (which removed all legal aid in cases between parents) over 60% of parents represent themselves in proceedings about their children. That’s obviously bad news for children in the middle of disputes. Cases where parents are unable to access legal advice and representation are going to take longer. That’s prejudicial to children. Cases where one parent is represented and one is not can and must create a clear inequality in arms (a basic principle and cornerstone of our system). That’s prejudicial to children. Cases where one parent lacks the ability whether due to language skills, emotional, learning or other difficulties to put across a case. That’s prejudicial to children.

So make bold reforms. That’s fine. But don’t say children are at the centre of our justice system. They are not. For this to happen, there should be access to advice and representation for all parents in cases involving children. Agreed there should be encouragement, where safe for the child, towards both parents being involved in a child’s life. But don’t dress this up as putting children’s welfare at the heart of the family justice system. Let’s face it. The heart of the system, which promoted equality and fairness, has already been ripped out.

Rotherham: Child Sexual Abuse and Priorities

It’s headline news: Should Shaun Wright stand down?

Important? Yes. But surely there are more important issues in this terrible story of violence, abuse and gross negligence by so many agencies.

Of course Mr Wright, as South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, must take responsibility for his failings. But is his resignation really going to make a huge difference to the victims? Also is it going to stop this happening again?

For years, the child protection system has recognized the need for agencies to work together to protect vulnerable children. The Government’s Every Child Matters programme in 2002, following the Victoria Climbie Inquiry (where a little girl died following multi-agency failings) set up Local Children Safeguarding Boards. The idea was that representatives from health, social care, education etc would meet and collaborate to ensure a more joined-up approach to protecting children.

Yet still it goes on. Agencies do not talk to each other and more importantly, do not seem to listen to young people. Certainly in Rotherham, it seems the young girls and women were blatantly ignored.

I wonder if the problem is tied up with the victims, that is, the teenage girls who are particularly vulnerable to this type of targeted grooming. They may not be a group whom some find easy to help. They may be hard to engage with. They may have poor attendance in school or have dropped out altogether. They may be highly evasive and easily led because of difficult backgrounds and limited positive relationships. It is frightening yet not difficult to imagine that some agencies could tick their own responsibility box by adopting the I can’t help you if you won’t help yourself attitude.

Although the debate around Shaun Wright’s position is useful in highlighting the extent of the failings in our system, there needs to be a big change in attitudes to young people. We need to make sure that all young people are listened to. Jimmy Saville got away with his crimes for so long because it was felt by so many victims that they would never be believed. If the agencies had listened to and acted upon the complaints of the girls in Rotherham, there’s a good chance that the pathetic number of prosecutions (9 out of 1400 victims) could have increased therefore protecting others at risk.

Lessons need to be learned from Rotherham. Young people need to be listened to and the systems set up to protect them need to be used. Otherwise we will just all be reacting to the next scandal. Wasting so much energy on scapegoating may well be counter productive. That energy could be much better used in supporting the current victims and protecting those teenage girls who could be at risk of becoming future victims.

The legal aid cuts in cases about children are not right or fair.

Mumsnet Guest Post see

So, imagine you’re finally divorcing the husband who has sapped your confidence and made you feel ignorant and worthless for years. Now he wants to take your daughter, aged ten, to live with him in New York. Next week at the hearing, he’ll have a solicitor and a barrister to represent him – you will have no-one.

Or, you’re in court. A pinstriped barrister sighs loudly: ‘I think what you’re referring to is on page 417 of the bundle Mrs Jones,’ she says. Getting hotter and redder, you quickly leaf through the documents. “I want to say something about the Welfare List,” you say.

‘Welfare Checklist, I think you mean,’ the Barrister says slowly and deliberately. ‘Where’s this document in the bundle?’ she asks.

‘Oh it’s not,’ you reply, ‘it’s in my handbag, though’. You pull a crumpled mass of papers from your bag. ‘I read this last night. I sort of think it’s relevant. It’s the middle bit. I’ve put a star by it, it’s says, er…’

Now imagine that you dropped out of school at 14, and you struggle to read. You’re confronted with a pile of court papers that seem to relate to your son and your ex. You’ve been told you have to write your statement of evidence for the court.

Or you’re 22-years-old, your wife has just died and you’re only able to speak a little English. Her parents think your daughter would be better off with them – they would give her everything they gave their daughter – and they’ve got the best legal minds to help them fight you all the way.

All of these people are Self-Represented Litigants – that is, people who cannot afford legal advice and representation, and have to go it alone.

Before April 2013, legal aid was available for all parents in contact and residence proceedings concerning their children. But in an effort to cut £350million from the legal aid budget, along with some other areas of law such as divorce, welfare benefits and employment, access to legal aid in this area has been generally abolished. This has meant that a more or less level playing field has become vastly unfair.

In a recent survey by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in partnership with the Magistrates Association, 46% of parties in private family proceedings represented themselves which shows a 40% rise from December 2012 to December 2013. In the survey, 97% of the respondent magistrates said they believe people representing themselves has a negative impact on the courts work. The magistrates voiced concerns about delay, mis-balance in legal battles and the possibility of injustice.

It’s clear that we are regressing into a two-tier system. If you’ve got the cash, you’re fine; your lawyers can advise you on court procedures and your chances of success, so your expectations are managed, and you’ll know what you’re in for. Your lawyers can prepare your evidence and then negotiate on your behalf. This is particularly useful when every direct contact with your ex is a mountain that you are nowhere near yet able to climb. Your lawyers can then stand up and present your case in court too, using their years of training. They can call witnesses, analyse evidence, and cross-examine. Using the legal resources they have access to, they can cite relevant case law and legislation.

But if you can’t pay the fees, you get none of this. You will have to resort to a few books and whatever information you can find online to learn about procedures, filling in forms, submission of evidence and advocacy in court. For some, this may well be fine. But for many, it will be a long way from that. Some groups, such as those with learning and other difficulties, those with limited English, and, probably, women as a whole (who generally have less disposable income than men, especially after the breakdown of a relationship) are disproportionately affected by these cuts.

Making decisions about children is one of the court’s most crucial roles. But with all best intentions it is difficult to imagine that, where one party has legal advice and representation and the other does not, decision-making will be unaffected.

Whilst it is understandable that cuts in legal aid had to be made, it is difficult to accept that such cuts are right or fair in cases about children. Parents should not be expected to become quasi-lawyers and there should be equality of arms. The system should not be evolving to engender delay – particularly when a key principle of The Children Act 1989 provides delay is likely to be prejudicial to the child.

We cannot let this two-tier system establish itself and become the norm. We must put children at the core, and make cases involving children in our family courts absolutely fair – because, without fairness, children will ultimately be the ones who suffer.

Self-Represented Litigants – Access to Injustice

Picture this.

Mercy arrives alone at the Magistrates Court. David, her ex and the father of their twins, is already there. He though is chatting with his solicitor. Mercy, feeling terrified at the prospect of a 3 day court hearing, leafs through the 700 page bundle of evidence. Knowing their case is on next, she tries to remember what she has read on various websites about the court process. She pulls from her bag the Bar Council’s Guide to Representing Yourself in Court and re-reads the small section on family law. Then, David’s barrister arrives. David and his legal team huddle together. On David’s nod, his barrister approaches Mercy. David has made an offer to settle which is far from what Mercy feels to be best for the children. She looks about. Her heart thumps. She feels sick. What should she do?

Well she’s stuffed basically.

She either accepts the offer without having any form of independent legal advice. Or, she is forced to conduct a long and complex hearing where, alone and unaided, she will have to present her case, assimilate evidence, give evidence and cross-examine her ex (and maybe others if there is medical and other evidence at issue). Oh yes, also, she may have to argue a point of law referring to case law and legislation.

So how can this be fair? Both parties with legal advice and representation: that’s fair. Or even both parties without legal advice and representation: that’s far from ideal, but at least is fair. But what is unfair is this regression into a two-tier system caused by the Government cuts that have taken some proceedings about children outside the scope of legal aid. The result is that only the wealthy are able access advice and representation in cases concerning their children.

Last week the Independent reported that 46% of people seen by magistrates in the family courts are Self-Represented Litigants (‘SRL’s). That is, people like Mercy above who are D-I-Y litigants. The majority of magistrates in the survey felt this increase was leading to delays and injustice. This must be particularly so when those litigants face language barriers, have learning difficulties, mental health problems and/or other additional needs as well.

The Children Act 1989 makes the child’s welfare paramount in any decision made by the court. It is difficult to see how that can be maintained when a parent is putting his or her case to the court unaided. Also, there is a principle against delay in the Act. Again, how can delay not occur when litigants are dealing with their own cases without advice? All this has such huge potential to create injustice to the parties but more importantly, to the child or children at the centre of proceedings.

I know some cuts in legal aid had to happen. But they should not have been made in any area of law where children are the subject of the proceedings.

Equality of Arms. My foot.