Family law is undergoing a sea change in the UK. The Coalition Government has instituted a number of rapid reforms which will affect the hundreds of thousands of people who access the family court systems.
The legal aid budget is being drastically restricted. The courts will now require applicants for most private disputes of a financial or child-related nature to undergo an assessment for mediation meeting before they can go to court. The "talking" method of resolving family disputes known as collaborative law continues to go from strength to strength.
A Green Paper currently before Parliament proposes that people wanting to use the State to collect child maintenance should pay an application fee. At present, either parent can apply to CMEC (which used to be the CSA) free of charge to ask that a maintenance assessment be carried out.
At present, it costs about 40p in every £1 of child support payments to run CMEC and collect unpaid maintenance. The taxpayer is subsidising the huge financial cost of family breakdown.
The new proposals are that applications to use the "calculation service" will cost £100 for all cases, except where the applicant is on benefits (where the fee will be £50). This continues the trend of moving family disputes away from the public arena and placing them firmly within the private realm of your own family arrangements.
The principle is clear; the Government wants more people to accept more responsibility for their personal lives without throwing the cost of court or child support onto the taxpayer.
The difficulty is not with the principle : it must surely be right that the public arena should not have to bear the burden of resolving private distress, unless in exceptional circumstances ? Evidently, cases involving violence or abuse (particularly towards children) must be able to be put within the protective sphere of the court system. But for a vast number of couples who go to court each year on relationship breakdown, for divorce, financial orders and disputes about child contact, court can be a very blunt instrument to crack a delicate problem. Similarly, going to CMEC to have the State enforce child support. Should the over-burdened taxpayer be required to fund the life choices of inviduals? Is that what the State is for?
The problem is with the culture change that is required. For decades, couples and parents have been able to access the courts - often with the help of legal aid- to "sort out" their personal problems. A kind of presumption of an access to justice meaning court and financial assistance for court has arisen which can bear challenge. Could there not be a presumption that couples and parents should resolve their private differences privately, only coming to court (or CMEC) if the circumstances are compelling?
This would put the onus on us as individuals to take responsibility for what we do in our lives. Is that a bad thing?