My Lords, the Government agree with Resolution that parents need to minimise conflict when separating or divorcing to reduce adverse impacts on children. We encourage the use of mediation rather than litigation to resolve disputes about children and finances. Court processes now require consideration of mediation in such cases.
Does the Minister appreciate that mediation cannot work if the law is as uncertain as it is, especially now that legal aid has been removed and more than 50% of the money cases involve at least one litigant in person? Will he undertake to do an impact assessment on the removal of legal aid from the family courts, which has resulted in the strain that Resolution has pointed out? Will the Government commit to reforming the law on financial remedies on divorce to save money and remove some of that strain from the families and the children?
The noble Baroness is, of course, taking through this House her own Private Member’s Bill, which makes various recommendations for giving greater clarity to the arrangements on divorce. The Government are considering that, together with the Law Commission’s report on prenuptial agreements and financial arrangements after divorce. Certainty is of course desirable, but at the same time flexibility may be necessary to deal with difficult cases. The Government have already made it clear that they do not propose to bring forward legislation in this Session. The next Parliament will have an opportunity to consider not only the Law Commission’s thorough consultation but all the good work that the noble Baroness is doing in respect of her Bill.
My Lords, what assessment have the Government made of the Family Matters project, currently being piloted in Oxford, Crewe and Newcastle, which addresses the problems faced by families and children in these circumstances? What guidance and resources are they giving to schools and the National Health Service to detect and support children who are suffering from the effects of marital or relationship breakdown?
I am afraid that I am not briefed on the precise matters that the noble Lord has referred me to. Of course, the Resolution report referred to by the noble Baroness emphasises the various problems that are occasioned to children on divorce; they are well known, but they are helpfully emphasised in that report, and the Government are considering its consequences very carefully.
Would it not be helpful to divorcing couples to have a framework of the resources that should be allocated, with power in the court—if it went to court—to depart from that at the judge’s discretion? We could have a framework from which the parties would start as a way of settling their dispute, rather than coming into a situation where there were no rules at all and the question was completely open. Surely, it would help to restrict the question a bit if a framework existed.
The noble and learned Lord is quite right. That is a matter that is being considered, with the idea that there should be non-binding guidelines that would enable parties to have at least an idea of what the likely outcome would be on divorce. In fact, mediation is often successful. Experienced practitioners are able to predict—not with certainty but with some confidence—the outcome of cases and then advise their clients accordingly.
Legal aid is no longer available, as from April 2013. Whether divorces are always helped by lawyers is, of course, open to question. The Government are not convinced that lawyers are desirable at every stage of the process. Indeed, they feel that mediation is a much more satisfactory way of resolving disputes, whereas cases often result in benefits only to the lawyers rather than to the parties involved. Legal aid is available, within scope, for mediation. Following a recent development in April 2014, mediation is available to both sides, even though one side only is eligible for the initial MIAM session and for the first session after that. We believe that mediation is a much more satisfactory way of sorting these matters out.
My Lords, I speak as one of the evil lawyers who practise in this area of the law. Does the Minister recognise that children’s disputes are very difficult to settle when financial disputes are rampaging through the courts? It is very difficult to settle financial disputes, particularly in non-wealthy families. The wealthy of course have the privilege of spending as much money as they like on lawyers, and where the law remains uncertain, the judge’s discretion is so large. Can the Minister assure us that the Government will address the issue of certainty, which the Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, seeks to address? It is a political matter and not one to be left to the judges.
My noble friend is well qualified to tell the House about the difficulties in settling matters, including those concerning children, where there are other, financial aspects that remain uncertain. She will be aware that the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education recently published A Brighter Future for Family Justice, which covers the implementation of the Children and Families Act. That encourages mediation and the creation of child arrangements orders as opposed to the old contact orders and residence orders, and presumes the involvement of each parent in the life of the child. I am sure that the House will agree that, whatever the difficulties in financial arrangements, the interests of the children must come first.