Reaching an agreement: an example of overcoming entrenched disputes. By guest blogger Hayley Crossman

6026050882_4681975221_mYesterday was my MA dissertation recall day at Keele University where I am studying for an MA in Child Care Law and Practice.  It was good to be back with my university colleagues as we are all going through this ‘ordeal’ together and we all seem to be in a mild state of panic.

Sitting around the table we all seemed to be worrying about the same kind of things – How do I start this dissertation? What if I have changed my title? I have no idea where to start! When does this have to be in again?!

It was good to see that I was not the only one who had decided to change the title of my essay but I put this change down to working in an environment where every day brings something new to consider.  For the past few weeks I have been deliberating between various topics but have decided to carry on writing about the issue of contact (although listening to the other suggested topics being mentioned by my colleagues such as, adoption and the 26 week limit, the role of men in the family and domestic violence and child protection did have me verging on the point of changing titles completely).

Attending clients in meetings does open your eyes to the all encompassing reach of ‘family law’ and makes you realise the broad spectrum of issues which family lawyers deal with.  There is the financial side of divorce, the family side of divorce and the putting plans in place prior to marriage – no day will be the same and every client has a different story to tell; our job is to do the best for them in their circumstances.

Going back to my dissertation, I have started to look at some of the data around contact and found that this month Cafcass released their figures for private proceedings and care proceedings demand:

http://www.cafcass.gov.uk/news/2014/january/december-2013-private-law-demand-statistics.aspx

http://www.cafcass.gov.uk/news/2014/january/december-2013-care-demand-statistics.aspx

Unfortunately, there is no absolute breakdown of what the private law demand applications were.  I would be interested to know how many applications were for contact alone and how many of these were from non resident parents and how many were from other family members.  The figures appear to show that in 2013, applications for care proceedings fell whist applications for private law increased although applications in both arenas in December appeared to fall.  The figures do seem to fluctuate though and therefore it cannot be said for certain whether applications are really declining in public law but increasing in private law.

I had thought, following the family justice review and the government response to this,  that removing legal aid from private law proceedings would lead to a decline in the number of couples pursuing cases through the family courts.  The government had hoped that more couples would seek to come to an arrangement through mediation and the use of parenting agreements.  However, there will always be couples who are entrenched in bitter arguments and therefore feel they need to rely on family courts to make an order for contact, residence or prohibited steps orders (amongst other applications). Unfortunately, it is too soon to look at whether withdrawing legal aid is having an effect on the number of cases going through the family courts but the figures which emerge in the future should give us a better indication of this.  I am hoping that more robust data will also be available on the type of applications received by the courts.

I was intrigued to see if parenting agreements or (shared parenting plans) had ever been mentioned in case law – and they had.

Re: Z (Shared Parenting Plan: Publicity) [2006] 1 FLR 405 publicised a case which involved a couple who had been entrenched in bitter arguments for three years.  The father had abducted the child and had served time in prison for this.  Eventually, the parents had been able to reach an agreement as to the sharing the parental involvement with the daughter.  The opinion of the whole court was that the

“shared parenting plan agreed by the parents in this case was to be commended and such an approach could be considered as a basis for discussion and negotiation in future cases.”

Although this case is now nine years old, it could well be reported in future cases to show that not all matters concerning the residence of children need to go through the family courts and that an agreement can be reached even following long periods of family disputes.

I think this may be another area of law to watch in the future.

Photo by zeeweez via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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