About the Family Law Week blog

The Family Law Week Blog is a companion site to Family Law Week. It complements the news, cases and articles published on Family Law Week with additional comment and coverage of the wider aspects of family law.

The Blog is edited by Jacqui Gilliatt, of 4 Brick Court and Lucy Reed, of St Johns Chambers.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

If only we had a magic wand...

I recently stumbled across a US website called 'Our Family Wizard' which really interested me. OFW provides a service for separated parents to manage their communication and arrangements relating to their children. We have all dealt with those contact cases where 'he said' this and 'she said' that, where there are repeated complaints that dad was late or didn't turn up or that mum cancelled at the last minute or that one parent has been inflexible about contact or downright abusive. And they are always denied by the other party. And with this type of case there are two certainties: 1 there will not be any verifiable evidence of what has really happened and 2 a lot of time and money will be wasted by lawyers dealing with the tedious to-ing and fro-ing of allegation and counter allegation played out either in correspondence or in the court waiting room. It goes thus: Lawyer A: 'My client says your client [insert inappropriate behaviour]'. Lawyer B 'I'll take instructions'. ... Lawyer B 'My client denies what your client alleges. He says your client [insert inappropriate behaviour]'. Lawyer A: 'I'll take instructions'. ... Lawyer A: 'No, that's denied. And my client says [insert allegation]'...Repeat until called into court by irritated judge.

Parents who sign up to OFW can use the website as their exclusive means of communication: they can email each other via the website without revealing their personal email address, utilise a contact diary system which enables them to make requests to swap or change arrangements, to notify each other of appointments or events in the child's own diary and even to request and pay for specific items needed by a child. There is space to record all the child's basic information so that it is readily available to both parents (doctor, school, emergency phone no etc). What I think is great is that with parental consent both parties' lawyers and even CAFCASS can be given access to the records of who has said what and when, who has behaved reasonably and who has not, even enabling them to print out reports of activity via the site, including when each parent has logged in.

OFW provided me with several sample orders made by courts in the US, which show that courts there have ordered parents to use this website as their sole means of communication.

For something like £65 per parent per year this is really good value for money when you think of the legal expenses that could potentially be saved. No need to argue about 'he said' 'she said', and a means of communication that is visible to both parties' lawyers is likely to have a calming effect on previously fraught relations. Of course it won't be suitable for all or even many cases, and for many parents even £65 per year is prohibitively expensive (shame legal aid wouldn't pay) but I can see this working really well for some families. Both parents would need to have basic computer literacy, regular access to the internet and be prepared to check in regularly - for US phone networks the site will send a text message to notify if a new message is received, but this is not currently available for UK phone networks.

There are drawbacks - whilst the services are available to parents wherever they are the product is clearly designed for a US market. A UK version would be good - irritating features such as the US mm/dd/yyyy format and financial tools which are not really in tune with the English arrangements for child support are two things which added to the lack of text alerts make this a less than perfect service.

I suspect that the majority of Judges and even lawyers would be initially skeptical about this sort of arrangement, but I do think that in the right case it may have an important part to play. Next time a case crosses my desk that requires something more than a contact book I will seriously consider suggesting the parties consider signing up.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Panel Minutes

I had a salutary reminder recently of how useful it can be getting hold of minutes of internal meetings held within the local authority which are not routinely disclosed. Thanks to the Guardian in the case who badgered the local authority to produce the minutes of the Adoption Panel the court was able to see the natural and unvarnished attitude of the social work team towards a parent in the case. I can think of a number of other cases in which these sorts of minutes have been useful. In one instance an Adoption Team Manager gave evidence that a child could be placed for adoption within 6 months. The following day we received the minutes of the adoption needs meeting which showed that her realistic time estimate in relation to the particular child was actually that it would take at least a year to place her. In two other cases the Panel minutes revealed that blatant lies were told to the Panel by social workers (for example, that a child had been injured when they had not and that the care plan approved by the court did not involve a recommendation for direct contact post adoption). Strategy meeting minutes can also be useful in identifying the approach of professionals to a case from the very outset. Running records and documents which follow the trail of internal decision making within the local authority can also be extremely helpful. There is clear case law reminding local authorities of their duties to disclose documents and in theory, according to Munby J, a suitably experienced legal practitioner from the local authority should identify any relevant records from the files and disclose them. When this case was first reported there was a flurry of requests for extensive and arguably unnecessarily burdensome automatic disclosure. Whilst things have settled down it is always worth seeking specific disclosure if you start to get a feeling in your bones that strange decisions have been made or that a social worker has formed a view that does not seem to marry up with your impression of the client.

Cafcass & fact finding

Speaking as one who is having enormous difficulties managing my own caseload I was interested to learn yesterday of a novel approach being adopted in the Stoke area to managing the deluge of cases in which domestic violence allegations are made and which would ordinarily be listed for a fact finding hearing. The pressure on the courts is such that Cafcass Officers are apparently being instructed to express an opinion on allegations and counter-allegations made by parents in order to assist the court and avoid the need for a hearing. In my view this is very dangerous territory. This is an effectively judicial function for which Cafcass Officers have no training and unless they are extremely careful they run the risk of making judgements without having the full facts or the skills to challenge the evidence being presented to them by one or other parent.

Has anyone else come across this approach in other parts of the country? The District Judge in the case in which the issue emerged expressed disapproval of the practice for reasons which will be obvious to family practitioners. He also picked up another important practice issue: the welfare checklist has been deleted from the new style analysis & recommendations pro forma with the obvious danger that the statutory criteria may end up being ignored by those charged with advising the court.