Parents: Separation Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice
Monday 22nd April 2024

(2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Bishop of Derby Portrait The Lord Bishop of Derby
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for bringing this debate on this important matter. As I hope noble Lords will know, the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households—with which I know the noble Lord was engaged—looked at this subject closely. It is out of this commission that I want to speak this evening. During the commission’s work, the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act became law. Opportunities could be taken through that legislation to ensure that couples separating and considering separating—and their children—are made aware of all the support that could be available to them. Surely this is an area in which pastoral concern must feature heavily, both in our policy-making and in our application of legislation and guidance.

As the Family Justice Review found more than a decade ago, too many families whose relationships disintegrate end up in the court system. While the creation of a single unitary family court was a step in the right direction, there is still much work to do, not least in reducing delays in the family courts. As we have heard, the removal of legal aid for separating couples, except where there are allegations of domestic abuse or where a child is at risk, means that couples may not receive the advice and support they need. The continued availability of family mediation vouchers is welcome but is not necessarily a substitute for the vital legal aid that could be in place.

There is much to be affirmed in the Government’s ambitious package of reforms announced earlier this year, many of which reflect the commission’s recommendations. We hope the enhanced focus on conflict resolution and children’s welfare will enable separating families to access the right information at the right time. Piloting the funding of early legal advice for parents—to help them understand the options available and how to access professional support, and encourage them to reach agreements amicably—is especially welcome.

Despite the high divorce and separation rate, there remains a taboo around relationship breakdown. Such a situation—divorce and separation—is never easy, and we trust that it would not be the first resort for any couple experiencing relationship difficulties. For some, the introduction of no-fault divorce has ended their need as separating couples to apportion blame for the breakdown of their marriage or partnership. This has the potential to reduce animosity and increase the chances of more amicable discussions, particularly around future arrangements for children.

By approaching this subject with openness and providing appropriate support, we may perhaps save relationships, as well as softening the impact for anyone in families where relationships do end in separation. As we have heard again this evening, when parental separation does not occur amicably, the negative effects of continued conflict on children can last a lifetime.

I will draw my brief remarks together this evening by focusing on just one of the commission’s recommendations: that children whose parents are separating need clear, age-appropriate information about the process and to be kept informed throughout. The commission heard that they do not want to be kept in the dark. The evidence is clear that children and young people welcome the opportunity to have their voices heard during the divorce process. The commission also heard from children whose parents have separated that the processes for them should have been—and that their desire for children in the future is that the processes are—transparent, informative, respectful, inclusive, safe and child friendly.

What are the Government doing to monitor how changes in legislation and process are enabling those outcomes for children caught up in this? How are we monitoring that children have access to information that enables the processes in which their families are involved to be transparent, age-appropriately informative, respectful, inclusive and safe? The extension of pathfinder courts may be one example of how this can be done, working with adults and children in a multiagency approach, but what else might work in different circumstances?

Surely the best interests and well-being of children are paramount. I encourage the Government to continue their focus on this important area and consider ways of supporting all involved—particularly the children—through this difficult life transition.