The panel contained:
- Mary Raymont, a family mediator and solicitor, who has also completed parenting co-ordinator training
- Adele Ballantyne, a relationship therapist
- Helen Adam, a mediator and chair of the Family Solutions Group (a subgroup of the Private Law Working Group), and
- Juliet Harvey, a chartered legal executive, collaborative lawyer and our Resolution National Chair
The overriding call from the speakers was for us to collaborate more, to share knowledge and resources, and to lead by example, putting children’s needs at the centre of our practice.
The speakers encouraged us to reflect on how our working habits can impact on our clients and their families, our colleagues and society at large. The key messages were positive and inclusive:
- Let’s set an example to our clients about how to communicate respectfully, about how to problem solve instead of point score, about how to centre discussions around the children at the middle of our cases.
- Let’s use language better, more accurately, more carefully and more constructively.
- Let’s make some noise about the introduction of no-fault divorce.
- Let’s use that to springboard other initiatives, for cohabiting couples, for non-court dispute resolution.
Helen Adam explained the key recommendations of the Family Solutions Group report, which aims to spark further conversations about how best to support separating families and provide a framework for the President of the Family Division for future reforms.
While no-fault divorce will enable us to strip out one adversarial element of the process next year, the speakers were concerned that it will not make a difference if we continue to use inflammatory language that entrenches positions and steers clients towards court. Mary Raymont encouraged us to stop point scoring and remember that there are human beings involved in these situations, as both clients and professionals.
From a therapist’s perspective, Adele Ballantyne talked about the importance to society of child-focused separation, which should help future generations to have successful adult relationships (whether parent/child or couple relationships) and feel capable of recognising and leaving toxic relationships. Parents need to see separation as an opportunity to be a role model for their children. Again, we need to re-frame separation. For example, let’s encourage parents to think in terms of them each having parental responsibility for their children 100% of the time, not sharing their child 50/50 – Family law Twitter recently offered the legal metaphor of parents needing to think of themselves as joint tenants, as opposed to tenants in common.
The conversation highlighted and recommended several projects aimed at improving matters for separating families, including Resolution training sessions on Early Help for Parents and on the use of language, and resources such as:
- Family Solutions Group report – “What about me?” – Essential reading for all family practitioners.
- Nuffield Family Justice Observatory Report – Children’s experience of private law proceedings: Six key messages from research.
- The Family Law Language Project – Launched by Emma Nash and aimed at making language accessible and less adversarial.
- Family Justice Young People’s Board (FJYPB) – Has resources for schools and parents, including 10 top tips for separating parents, produced by young people with direct experience of the family justice system.
- The Rights Idea – This is a short film on YouTube aimed at secondary school children to inform them of their rights when their parents separate.
- The Parents Promise – A website that helps parents make a positive commitment to their children in case of relationship breakdown.
- Resolution’s Parenting Through Separation Guide – Provides parents with access to information and support that helps them throughout their parenting journey, through separation, divorce and beyond.
There is a huge amount of valuable support available, but the speakers acknowledged it can be hard for separating couples to find. Juliet Harvey explained that Resolution is speaking to HMCTS about whether their website could pull together links to resources on the online divorce platform. The Family Solutions Group has also called for a national network of parenting programmes, to make it easier to find local courses.
Adele Ballantyne spoke about the need for early intervention – we need to remember to signpost our clients to Separated Parents Information Programmes (SPIPs) right at the beginning, before positions become entrenched, and before court applications are considered. With each new client who walks through the door (or joins the Zoom meeting), we need to consider the support and tools they need for the journey ahead, consider what education, information and training they may benefit from, and encourage parents to think about what their children need from them.
Helen Adam spoke about an initiative in Kent – the Supporting Separated Families Alliance – which has drawn together details of local services on to one website. The website is stated on every court order in Kent and there are posters in court buildings to raise awareness.
Juliet Harvey suggested practitioners who attend regional Family Justice Board meetings could work together to share details of local organisations offering support for families.
However, all of this relies on the work of volunteers without any public funding; and this must change.
But we are still faced with a political void. As Helen Adam explained, the needs and rights of children of separating parents are issues that fall between the cracks of THIRTEEN different government departments, none of whom will take responsibility. We need a specific Department for Children and Families to be doing this work, instead of volunteers, in order to achieve real, lasting change.
Let’s make some noise
The introduction of no-fault divorce is a real opportunity to catch the nation’s attention for family justice issues. We need to use this opportunity to put pressure on the government and generate momentum. We need to work together to promote the recommendations of the Family Solutions Group Report and ensure this work is not wasted.