• In 2013, legal aid was withdrawn from the majority of family cases – even where the potential parties could not afford legal representation (unless they could show they were victims of domestic abuse).

    For parents who were not victims of abuse, but could not agree the arrangements for their children with the other parent, early legal advice from a solicitor was frequently no longer available. Very few other reasonably priced services existed.

    The most affordable step became an application to the court without the help of a solicitor. As a result, the family courts have come almost to a standstill, overwhelmed by the large numbers of applications made by unrepresented parents to sort out the arrangements for their children.

    For those of us working in the family justice system, it is clear that the courts are unable to cope and should, in any event, be the option of last resort when trying to work out what arrangements should be made for children.

    In circumstances where children or parents are at risk of harm, the court process is indispensable. However, in the majority of cases where parents are simply trying to work out how best to share time with the children, the court process is at best unhelpful, and at worst can damage parental relationships which need to be preserved for the long-term benefit of the children.

    A report was commissioned to consider these issues and what can be done to improve outcomes for children. The Private Law Working Group recommended that local alliances should be formed, made up of those who work with separating families both legal and non-legal. The premise was to bring all of those together who can provide early intervention, support and information to parents going through separation and attempting to work out the arrangements they need to make for their children.

    Supporting families in Kent to resolve contact disputes

    Kent has led the way in forming such an alliance which we have called the Supporting Separating Families Alliance: Kent. The alliance has brought together for the first time many of the organisations in Kent which support separating families including the judiciary, social services, CAFCASS, solicitors, mediators, counselling services, the NSPCC, contact centres and local charities who support parents.

    I am privileged to sit on the steering committee. The experience has opened my eyes to the range of services available to separating families in Kent but also the extent to which, prior to the formation of the alliance, those services tended to work in isolation from one another and often without the knowledge of the others’ existence.

    Having set up a website which brings all the various services in Kent to one easily accessible site, we hope that parents will now more easily find constructive alternatives to court when navigating their way through a disagreement about the arrangements they need to make for their children.

    Next steps for the alliance are still under discussion but we recognise that there needs to be a move away from thinking of courts as the primary method of resolving family disputes. Court should always be the last resort when other forms of support and dispute resolution have been unsuccessful or are not appropriate.

    A colleague on the steering committee and I spoke to the Family Law Bar Association Conference recently. We spoke to the Family Law Bar Association Conference about what we have achieved to date. If anyone would like to join in the conversation about what more can be done to support separating families please let me know.

    Need help resolving a child arrangements dispute?

    If you are struggling to agree on child arrangements with your ex-partner, our experienced team of family law solicitors can help you explore alternatives to court. Where court is simply unavoidable, our family solicitors can also assist. For guidance about your options, speak to one of our friendly team by calling us on 01622 690691. Alternatively, book an initial fixed-fee virtual appointment or use our no-obligation online tool to get started at a time that suits you.

    This content is correct at time of publication

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