Child law reforms

17 Jan 2005

Published January 2005, Philip Rutter

The government on 18th January 2005 published its response to the July 2004 Green Paper "Parental Separation: Children's Needs and Parents' Responsibilities", it being widely acknowledged that the current law governing the children of separating parents is in need of reform. Some however still feel that the proposed changes do not go far enough.

The proposals are aimed at helping separating parents to make arrangements in the interests of their child. To help parents reach agreement, it is intended to provide improved access to information, advice and mediation at the time of separation. For those who have to have recourse to the courts, the government intends to improve the legal process. However, there is not going to be a wide scale shake-up of the existing legislation and there are not going to be any fundamental legislative changes to the principles in the Children Act 1989, the principal statute affecting children.

The government has published an agenda for action of the steps they plan to take. Proposals include:-

  • The piloting of an integrated domestic violence court to safeguard children from harm. The government does not plan to introduce a presumption of no contact before it has been established that contact will be safe for all involved.
  • The development of new Parenting Plans - templates to show the sort of contact arrangements that work well for children of different ages and in different circumstances.
  • The strong promotion of mediation.
  • The promotion and extension of in-court conciliation.
  • A changing role for the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), including a role which is more geared to problem solving.
  • Improving case management by the court, including ensuring judicial continuity in cases.
  • There is no intention to introduce a presumption of equal contact which some have been calling for.

The response also addresses probably the most highly publicised problem of recent times: that of enforcing contact orders where one parent is determined to flout whatever order the court may make. The government intends to legislate at the earliest possible opportunity to provide additional enforcement powers beyond the limited powers currently available of imprisonment or fining a parent who disobeys a contact order. The Court will have power to refer a parent to a parenting programme, class or information session at any stage of proceedings. They will be able to attach conditions to orders which may require attendance at a given class or programme. Where an order is breached sanctions will be introduced to impose community-based orders for unpaid work or curfew, and the awarding of financial compensation from one parent to another. The final sanctions of imprisoning or fining a defaulting parent will remain.

The government has gone some way to addressing the problems that are endemic within the present system. Certainly providing help and information from the outset should help many people resolve issues that they may have sooner than happens under the current system. However whether the proposals will go any significant way to solving the more difficult cases which repeatedly return to court will remain to be seen.

For further information, please contact Philip Rutter.

Additional information