Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division addressed the Jersey International Family Law Conference on 8th October 2021.  Entitled “Supporting Families in Conflict: There is a better way”, his speech focussed on what he described as the primary topic on which intends to concentrate until his retirement in three years time: the need for wholesale reform of the way in which separated parents manage their disputes.

Despite a number of recommendations and initiatives over recent years to divert private law cases from the court system, unfortunately the numbers continue to rise steadily.  With the ongoing knock-on effect of Covid-19 delays, there is now an almost insurmountable backlog of private law cases working their way through the system.  Alongside the huge financial cost to the public, separated parents resorting to the Family Court to resolve their disagreements has an enormous social cost, not least on the outcomes for children caught up in the process.

The President therefore reiterated his clear intention to implement the recommendations of the “What about me?” report of the Family Solutions Group before the end of his tenure.  This calls for a public education campaign to reframe family breakdown away from the language of “justice” and towards a greater wider understanding of child welfare in the context of separated families.

The key headlines of the report’s aims are as follows

  • A framework and language which promotes child welfare and a co-operative parenting approach
  • Access to information and direct services for children
  • Mechanisms for the child’s voice to be heard at the time when decisions are being made which affect them
  • Access to information and direct services for parents about how to parent following separation
  • A consideration of the emotional state of the parents and the impact this has on their parenting decisions
  • A multi-disciplinary response, involving therapists, parenting specialists, mediators and legal services

Separating parenting programmes should become the norm, and we should move towards entrenching a concept of “co-operative parenting” at all stages of separation.  We are reminded that:

“The task of parenting a child continues from birth until well into adulthood.  This task continues for parents who are together, for parents who are separating and for parents who have separated.  The end of a couple’s relationship does not mean an end to parenting responsibilities; they may be exercised differently post-separation, but they continue nonetheless.”

Local areas will be encouraged to develop Family Hubs.  These will be multi-agency organisations which should be visible to members of the public and which will work towards triaging separated families into appropriate local resources, only recommending court involvement where it is necessary due to a safeguarding reason.

It remains to be seen whether these laudable aspirations will be implemented before Sir Andrew moves on – or at all – but the message is clear: we must all collectively begin to focus on conflict resolution and diverting our clients away from the court process wherever possible.

No5’s Family Group offer a number of non-court dispute resolution services, including mediation and arbitration.