— Sofia Lagergren is a solicitor at McKinnells in Lincoln, specialising in all aspects of family law. She regularly deals with issues concerning contact with and residence of children, divorce, civil partnership and financial issues following the breakdown of relationships.
The government has just published the Norgrove report on family justice, which was undertaken in order to look at ways in which the family court system could be reformed in order to make it more efficient and cost-effective.
It doesn’t make for good reading. To me, this report fails on two levels. First, because some of the proposals are barking mad. Second, because the changes, far from saving money, will probably end up costing more.
The proposal that is making all the headlines is that it rejects the idea of giving both parents equal rights so that they share access to children. Predictably, and understandably, groups representing and campaigning on behalf of fathers have soundly criticized this.
All too often, access to children becomes a battleground for embittered parents, where the outcome, whatever it is, damages all concerned. Giving both parties equal rights would have avoided this. It is a real opportunity missed. By not clearly defining such rights it means that bitter disputes will continue to play out through the courts. It’s sad, but inevitable.
Equally controversial is the proposal for separated couples to deal with their own divorces rather than use a lawyer. Instead they would access an information hub, download forms, talk things through and then sort things out amicably. I am not sure which planet this is supposed to happen on — most of the divorce clients I see cannot even stand to be in the same room as each other, let alone sit down over a cup of tea and calmly decide how to end their relationship.
There doesn’t seem to be any understanding of the fact that divorce and separation are highly emotional issues, often triggered by mistrust, betrayal or even physical violence. When extreme emotions are at work then logic and reasoning go out of the window along with their ex’s clothes and CD collection.
However, according to this report, mediation is the answer to everything, so let’s look at this for a moment. For mediation to work, a separated couple have to be able to agree matters. If they can do that, then they probably don’t need mediation. If they can’t agree things, then mediation is not going to work anyway!
The only creditable way to handle a divorce is when someone looks at the issues without emotion and can deal with the facts objectively on your behalf, and that’s where lawyers like me come in. We work on your behalf to get the best outcome.
Now, we all know this government is committed to saving money; and most would agree that savings do have to be made, so the Legal Aid budget is now in the firing line. Never mind that the whole budget for legal aid would only keep the NHS running for one weekend, cuts are going to be made in 2012. Side by side with this, the government wants to reform family courts. So does reform equal cost savings? I am not so sure.
There are some good things in the report, such as reducing the time taken in dealing with child care cases. The present delays are a scandal. But by being cost driven and not understanding human emotions, the report has missed an opportunity to really get to grips with some of the problems in family justice.