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The experts were tasked with giving fresh and focused attention to ways in which we might improve the experiences of separating families away from the Family Court where it is safe to do so.

Experts urge new campaign to stop acrimonious family court battles during relationship breakdowns

A permanent change in cultural attitudes is needed to steer separating parents away from acrimonious legal proceedings during family breakdowns, experts have said. 

Only around a quarter of separating parents need assistance from the family courts because of safety issues such as abuse, addiction or severe mental illness. Other families should be supported to resolve issues in a child-focused way themselves, according to the group

Members of the Family Solutions Group, which includes Dr Jan Ewing from the University of Exeter, have expertise in working with separated families in and out of court. They were tasked with giving fresh and focused attention to ways in which we might improve the experiences of separating families away from the Family Court where it is safe to do so.

Their report, published today, calls for a more coordinated, joined-up approach across government departments to tackle the financial and human cost of family breakdown. Currently there is no overarching policy or provision for the children of families who live apart, and no government department with responsibility for separating families. 

Every year, around 280,000 children see their parents separate in the UK.  The report says the current system is failing many children and their parents, and this affects society as a whole.   

The experts say issues of safety should be identified early and families directed onto a “safety pathway”, where they are given accessible and affordable support, and access to representation in court where needed.

For other families, where there are no safety concerns, there is a need to “reframe the conversation” so that a legal response is not the default option. These families require a ‘cooperative parenting pathway’, which presumes that parental involvement, almost always in the form of contact with both parents, is beneficial to a child. 

The experts recommend a campaign of public information and education with the aim of achieving a permanent shift in cultural attitudes towards using the family court, and a “reframing” of the conversation so that young people’s needs and voices are centre stage when parents separate.

The report says the “reflex action” during separating is for parenting disagreements to be framed as legal disputes, and too many parents who separate on difficult terms expect to fight over their competing ‘rights’, rather than co-operate over their shared ‘responsibilities’. 

Dr Ewing, from the University of Exeter Law School, said: “Using the courts can be a blunt instrument for a family going through separation, and for many families, provided safety is not an issue, this is not necessary. Disagreements about children can be the result of high emotions following relationship breakdown, so it isn’t appropriate to think a system designed to administer justice can help in these circumstances. The adversarial nature of a justice system may only add fuel to the fire, increasing stress and conflict within the family.

“This has to change. We are calling for a system which holistically assesses the needs of families and offers clear routes to integrated support and therapeutic services, funded (where financially eligible), and in which the voices of children are central.”

The report recognises that the changes called for will require better coordination of support both locally and nationally. The experts hope a more humane response to relationship breakdown can help to blunt the psychological impact of separation for parents and their children.

Date: 12 November 2020

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