Taking the fight out of family separation

Key figures in the English family law world attended an event in London last week aimed at developing a better way to achieve good enough co-parenting between separating parents.

Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division in the English and Welsh Courts, stated  that court should be the last resort – there should be a better way of resolving family disputes.  He mentioned pathfinders currently taking place in North Wales and Dorset and the need to make the language of separation less adversarial.

The pathfinder pilots are testing a more investigative approach, featuring earlier gatekeeping and information gathering to enable earlier triaging decisions and to front-load engagement with parties rather than engaging through multiple hearings. The courts in North Wales and Dorset will also seek to hear the voice of the child more clearly through each case.

He agreed that early engagement well before the court processes start is crucial, saying that : “there is a need for more than rearranging the deckchairs [in court], we have to get to people when they are on the gangplank.”

This event follows on from the “What About Me” report issued by the Family Solutions Group in 2020.  That group was set up by Sir Stephen Cobb in 2020 to consider what can be done to improve the experience of children and families in England and Wales before any application is made to the family court.

The London event was also attended by Suella Braverman MP, the Attorney General for England and Wales.  She agreed to try and co-ordinate the UK Government’s work to address the impact of family separation on children.

Professor Gordon Harold spoke about the evidence on Inter-Parental Conflict and Family Separation.  This shows that although it is normal for it to take at least two years for children and teens to adjust to a family separation, the higher the levels of conflict, the harder it is to adjust.  These ripple effects will continue for longer, with corresponding poorer outcomes for mental  health, anxiety, depression, academic failure, substance abuse, conduct problems, criminality, peer problems and adversely affected brain development.

These dire consequences could be converted into positive long-term outcomes if action is taken early to reduce the level of inter-parental conflict, with benefits not just for the individuals but for the whole of society.

The theme that was woven throughout all discussions was the need to restore the child to the centre in systems which currently operate for parents.  That theme applies just as strongly in Scotland, given the recent attempts to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scottish law.

Shared Parenting Scotland will continue to press for the same type of changes to happen here.  Separated parents need early support to keep them out of court and their children need protected from high levels of conflict.

(The photo shows (L-R) Adam Colthorpe from Dads Unlimited, Helen Adam from the Family Solutions Group, Suella Braverman MP, Siobhan Baillie MP, Sir Andrew McFarlane and Dr Jan Ewing who is studying wellbeing outcomes for children whose parents separate)