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Volume 809: debated on Wednesday 6 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the research on the impact of divorce published by Resolution on 30 November, what steps they are taking (1) to improve the capacity of family courts, and (2) to support divorce litigants.

[Inaudible]—enormous pressure. Despite this unprecedented challenge, I can reassure the House that the whole system has worked together to prioritise support for the most vulnerable. Of course, we acknowledge that there is always more to do, which is why the department continues to work with the advice sector to provide vital support services for litigants.

The Resolution report showed that we are heading for disaster in the family courts, and that 41% of those recently divorced suffered mental health episodes or even had suicidal thoughts. The Nuffield report on remote hearings showed that while the professionals are happy with remote court working, litigants are not. There are technical issues and a lack of privacy. What will the Government do to help those in divorce proceedings? Disputes over financial provision are a major irritant. If mediation is a solution, the law in that area has to be simplified. Will the Minister update the House on progress with a promised review of financial provision law aimed at making it less contentious?

My Lords, I do not accept the noble Baroness’s characterisation of the situation as one in which we are heading for disaster. The situation is no doubt complex, and we are aware of the data to which she refers.

My Lords, Resolution urges early support for separating couples to mitigate the pain of divorce and consequential mental ill health they and their children very frequently experience. The Lord Chancellor committed to join up government family support to mitigate the pain of no-fault divorce. Family hubs, as recommended by Justice Cobb’s Family Solutions Group, are firmly on the Department for Education’s agenda, but how will the Ministry of Justice ensure support for separating families?

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct to identify the family hubs as a principal part of the Government’s intention to join up government family support as part of the backdrop to implementing no-fault divorce. Ministers and officials from the Ministry of Justice are working closely with their counterparts in the Department for Education and a number of other government departments to share a cross-government agenda for strengthening families. Family hubs are a vital element of this agenda, and work is continuing to further develop the family hub model to ensure that they improve outcomes for children and families with children. This will include those at risk of separating or who have separated, equipping them with the skills to manage issues and decisions independently and effectively so that they do not need to rely on family courts. In addition, and as previously stated in this House, the Government will use the opportunity of revising the online divorce application process to improve the signposting of relevant support services.

My Lords, will the Minister ensure that the Government give sufficient support, especially to children suffering from the separation of their parents, including better funding for CAMHS?

I am very sorry; may I ask the noble and learned Baroness to repeat the question? I am trying to communicate by telephone, and it is not particularly easy.

My Lords, I think we should move on to the next question. If my noble friend the Minister could write to the noble and learned Baroness with his answer, we can move on to the next supplementary.

My Lords, I think we are all aware that this post-Christmas period is a particularly difficult time for relationships, and the feelings of depression and anxiety among divorcees, which the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, referred to, are made worse when they are worried about whether they can afford professional or legal advice. So many decide to represent themselves in the divorce court rather than to have professional advice, sometimes with disastrous results. How do the Government intend to ensure that poorer people have access to justice, and what are they doing to relieve the huge burden of overwork for court staff which leads to phones not being answered and cases postponed?

My Lords, with regard to the noble Lord’s first question, legal aid is available for private families where an applicant is a victim of, or at risk of being a victim of, domestic abuse or child abuse, and that is subject to the means and merits criteria. Legal aid is available for the purpose of obtaining urgent protection such as non-molestation orders without any up-front evidence requirements, and the Legal Aid Agency has the power to waive all financial eligibility limits so that a victim may qualify for legal aid even if their income or capital exceeds the eligibility limits. An overall contribution may be required later. Legal aid for matters out of scope of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is available via the exceptional case funding scheme. That is intended to ensure that legal aid is accessible in all cases where there is a risk of breach of human rights, subject to the statutory means and merits test.

[Inaudible.] Can the Minister confirm that, as discussed in the recent GR judicial review case, where a wife subjected to domestic abuse has been assessed as having capital in a jointly owned matrimonial home but is otherwise penniless, and where she can demonstrate that she is unable to access that capital because the violent husband refuses to sell or mortgage the property, the director of legal aid casework has a discretion which he should exercise to treat the applicant as financially eligible for legal aid?

The noble Lord’s question addresses aspects of detail as well as recent case law. I do not have the detail and the material with me to permit me to provide the noble Lord with a satisfactory answer. Again, I shall ensure that I correspond with him and put down in writing the answer to his question.

My Lords, in November, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, Cafcass, triggered its prioritisation protocol in South Yorkshire and the Humber region, which means it is allocating only the highest priority cases there due to severe understaffing. The trade union Napo has described this as a crisis. What steps is the Minister taking to prevent this prioritisation protocol being triggered in other areas, and what estimate has he made of the extra resources necessary to stabilise Cafcass in this region and to prevent a similar protocol being triggered elsewhere?

The question covers some of the ground posed by an earlier question but I am happy to answer it. Approximately £3.5 million of additional funding has assisted Cafcass in increasing staffing levels. Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service has recruited approximately 900 additional support staff across jurisdictions and around 700 further appointments are currently sought. Your Lordships will be aware that Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service has established 17 Nightingale courts across England and Wales. These give 32 additional courtrooms to alleviate the pressure on courts and tribunals. These courts are hearing, as well as family cases, civil, tribunal and non-custodial criminal work. I can advise that judicial sitting days in the family court have been increased. Current projections are that a level of nearly 96,000 sitting days for 2020-21 may be accomplished—5,000 more than allocation—and the courts sat for record numbers of days in June and July 2020.