UPDATE: Back to school – or not?

back to school or not UPDATE

Back to school - or not?

Recently we blogged about Laurence Fox and his claim that he would take his sons out of school should vaccines be rolled out for 12-year-olds on the basis that he feared they would have the Covid jab without his permission.

Now there has been a case in America where a father in New York has been banned, by a family court judge, from seeing his daughter unless he gets the Covid vaccination.

Family Law Associate Melissa Jones looks at the issues.

This is an interesting scenario. In this particular case, contact was not deemed to be in the best interest of the child on the basis that  the father was opposed to the Covid vaccination. The judge was quite strict in his ruling, notably amid a worrying time in the middle of a global pandemic, and made the following comments:

“The dangers of voluntarily remaining unvaccinated during access with a child while the Covid-19 virus remains a threat to children’s health and safety cannot be understated.

“Unfortunately, and to my mind, incomprehensibly, a sizable minority, seizing upon misinformation, conspiracy theories, and muddled notions of ‘individual liberty’, have refused all entreaties to be vaccinated.”

What happens with contact in the UK if a parent refuses the vaccine?

It’s a possible worry for a lot of parents, but not one that has seemingly featured in the family courts in England and Wales. If this was a matter raised by a parent, within the English Courts, those Courts are likely to be guided by Cafcass, the advisory service to the Courts, to prepare an assessment to consider the risk factors and to decide whether contact is actually in a child’s best interest.

Extreme circumstances

In extreme circumstances, particularly if a child is medically vulnerable, Cafcass and the court may exercise caution: but it would be a rarity.  No doubt the Court would also consider NHS guidance and other expert evidence they consider necessary.  Plus, there are now many modern alternatives to face-to-face contact, such as video contact and voice notes, that could mean the parent and child relationship could be maintained.  It is a child’s right to have a relationship with both parents and the Court will want to maintain that relationship wherever possible.

The court application

If the other parent is strongly opposed to their child being vaccinated (not just the Covid vaccine) and they cannot agree on this, then they could apply to the court for a Prohibited Steps Order and/or Specific Issue Order, which are orders that can prevent certain actions being taken by a parent, and/or making decisions on matters that parents cannot agree upon in the exercising of their rights and duties relating to parental responsibility.  Medical issues fall into these categories.

The court will consider the parents’ opinions and the best interests of the children.

Before making an application to the court, it is expected that parents should try and resolve matters as best they can. Parents might wish to engage in negotiation through solicitors, mediation or arbitration before either one makes an application to the court.

The child’s welfare

The child’s welfare is the court’s paramount consideration. If you are faced with a request from the other parent to agree to vaccinate your child, it is best to take a pragmatic approach and decide as to whether you are simply opposed to the idea in general or whether you could perhaps identify some advantages to the move.

With the court considering what is in the child’s best interest, is therefore important for you to do your own research and have the necessary information to inform your decision/position.

If you are unsure about what to do in relation to arrangements for your children, we would advise you to seek specialist independent legal advice from an experienced family lawyer. Please do get in touch today. We’re here to help you.

When Adam met the judge

when adam met the judge

When Adam met the Judge

Adam: “Hi Judge. If you send me and my brothers home, will you give us a bodyguard?”

Judge: “Adam, if I thought you needed a bodyguard, I wouldn’t send you home.”

Partner Nick Hodson has specialised in the law relating to children for more than 20 years. Since 2001 he has been a member of the Law Society Children’s Panel, allowing him to represent children in both public and private law Children Act proceedings.

Here, he relates his experience of being the solicitor for Adam* and his brothers who wanted to meet the Judge who was going to hear their case.

Please be aware that reading some of the details in this story may be distressing.

 

*His name has been changed to protect his identity

This exchange was at a meeting at the Family Court when I took 11-year-old Adam and his brothers to meet the Judge who was going to hear their case.

I was the solicitor for the children. They had been removed from their parents care after the older children had made allegations that they had been physically abused by their parents. The children had said that they had been whipped with computer wires.

The child’s wishes and feelings

In making any decision about a child’s future, their wishes and feelings are a major consideration for the court. They are part of the welfare checklist that the court will review before concluding the case.

How are the children’s views relayed to the court?

Usually, the social worker and the CAFCASS officer will set out the children’s wishes and feelings in their reports. Sometimes, the children will write a letter to the Judge.

It has become increasingly common for older children to ask to meet the Judge. Over the past 18 months, such meetings have had to take place remotely. The Family Justice Council has produced guidance for judges who meet children during family proceedings. The guidelines are designed to encourage judges to enable children to feel more involved and connected to proceedings.

Key points from the guidance

* Such a meeting must be well planned and that everyone has to have a clear understanding of the purpose of the meeting.

* If a Judge decides to meet a child, it is a matter for the discretion of the Judge, having considered representations from the parties – (i) the purpose and proposed content of the meeting; (ii) at what stage during the proceedings, or after they have concluded, the meeting should take place; (iii) where the meeting will take place; (iv) who will bring the child to the meeting; (v) who will prepare the child for the meeting (this should usually be the Cafcass officer); (vi) who shall attend during the meeting – although a Judge should never see a child alone; (vii) by whom a minute of the meeting shall be taken, how that minute is to be approved by the Judge, and how it is to be communicated to the other parties.

* It cannot be stressed too often that the child’s meeting with the Judge is not for the purpose of gathering evidence.

* The purpose is to enable the child to gain some understanding of what is going on, and to be reassured that the Judge has understood him/her.

In the case of Adam and his brothers, at the final hearing the court decided that the parents had been responsible for the physical abuse on all their children.  The children remained in foster care.

The children’s voices had been heard loud and clear.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised here, please do get in touch. We’re here to help you.

Do grandparents have legal rights?

grandparents rights

Do grandparents have legal rights?

When parents separate, disputes in relation to children of the family can not only include estrangement from a parent but extend to wider family members, particularly grandparents who can often be stuck in between parent’s arguments.

What can those grandparents do in such a challenging situation?  Partner Caroline Bilous explains.

Legally speaking, there are no grandparents’ rights, as usually grandparents do not have Parental Responsibility (all mothers and most fathers have Parental Responsibility, which refers to the legal rights and responsibilities a parent in respect of a child, the most important of which are to provide a home and protect and look after a child) in the same way as a parent might have, although they might acquire it if a parent is unable to care.

However, the Family Court recognises that it is in a child’s best interests to maintain good relationships with close family members, particularly grandparents, even if the parent of the child cannot, and as such, a court order called a Child Arrangements Order may be obtained to protect such relationships.

Do grandparents’ rights include the right to see a grandchild?

Grandparents do not have an automatic right to see a grandchild and above all, whatever the relationship between estranged parents, it is important to step back and try to avoid becoming involved in any disagreement, which is hard to do when it is your own child involved. Maintaining good relationships with the other parent goes a long way in avoiding difficulties further down the line.

Can a grandparent apply to the Family Court to see a grandchild?

Yes, but grandparents do not have an automatic right to apply to court to see a grandchild in the same way as a parent may apply to see and spend time with their own child. However, the Family Court would rarely refuse permission (or leave) for a grandparent to make an application, providing there is no good welfare reason why it should not, providing they can show a close and enduring relationship exists. Also, as a family member, permission is not required if a child has lived with a grandparent for a period of one year prior to the application being made.

How can I apply to see my grandchild if I’m being prevented from doing so?

It is important that early advice from an experienced child and family lawyer. Time can be of the essence and leaving matters too long can engrain difficult circumstances. Unless there are urgent circumstances, getting an initial court hearing will take a minimum of four weeks or more in any event, and as a first step, you will be required to attend upon a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM) to see if it possible to resolve matters with the assistance of a Mediator.

What orders can the Family Court make?

The court could make a Child Arrangement Order for a grandchild to spend time with a grandparent, in the same way as it could for a parent. Each family is different though and no two cases are the same. Just because you may have heard that one grandparent has obtained a certain order, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you will.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised here, please do get in touch. We’re here to help you.

Back to school – or not?

Laurence Fox back to school or not covid children

Back to school - or not?

Laurence Fox, who shares two sons, Winston, 12, and Eugene, nine, with ex-wife Billie Piper, has once again hit the headlines, this time in relation to the “anti-vaxx” row. He has claimed he will take his sons out of school should vaccinations be rolled out for 12-year-olds, saying he fears they will have the Covid jab without his permission.

The question is, can a parent remove a child from school in the first place?

Family Law Associate Melissa Jones looks at the options available.

There is no plan – as of yet – for children in schools to be vaccinated before they return to school in September. But were such a plan in place, would a parent be able to stop their children from going to school? Given that there is a central government policy stating that children must attend school, any parent stopping their child from doing so would be appear to be in contravention of this policy, and likely subject to fines.

Mr Fox appears to be suggesting is that he wants to de-register the children and home school them. To do so, he would need the other parent’s permission as they share parental responsibility (given that they were married to one another) and need to make important decisions like education in consultation with one another.

What is parental responsibility?

Parental responsibility is as per section 3(1) of the Children Act 1989 (CA 1989) which confers all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to a child and his property.

What happens if you cannot agree on home schooling?

If parents cannot agree arrangements for their child or children in respect of their education, they can apply to court for a Specific Issue Order, and the court can address the issue of whether or not a child should remain at their current school or move to the other preferred school (in this case home schooling).

The court application

In the above scenario, if the other parent is strongly opposed to the change of school or home schooling, then they could apply to the court for a Prohibited Steps Order, which is an order that limits when certain rights and duties which can be exercised, such as making decisions about their education.

The court will consider the parents’ opinions and the best interests of the children. The children’s educational development, efficient home schooling techniques and underlying health issues in the family are some of the matters that will be considered by the court when deciding the issue.

Before making an application to the court,  it is expected that parents should try and resolve matters as best they can. Parents might wish to engage in negotiation through solicitors, mediation or arbitration before either one makes an application to the court.

The child’s welfare is the court’s paramount consideration. If you are faced with a request from the other parent to consider moving your child’s school, it is best to take a pragmatic approach and decide as to whether you are simply opposed to the idea in general or whether you could perhaps identify some advantages to the move. With the court considering what is in the child’s best interest, is therefore important for you to do your own research and have the necessary information to inform your decision/position.

Given that children returning to school is imminent – some may have already started the new term – a parent may struggle to get an urgent court hearing, although it may be that the court fixes a date as soon as it can. In the interim, without an order or decision you will need to keep open communication with the other parent.

If you are unsure about what to do in relation to arrangements for your children, we would advise you to seek specialist independent legal advice from an experienced family lawyer. Please do get in touch today. We’re here to help you.

Why autumn is a busy time for divorce lawyers

September busy month for divorce lawyers

Why autumn is a busy time for divorce lawyers

It’s commonly supposed that the New Year is a popular time for disgruntled spouses to make enquiries about filing for divorce, and certainly that’s true, but for the divorce lawyer, this autumn is proving to be just as busy.

Why might this be so?  Associate Aaron Williams explains.

Often it’s down to one or more of three factors:

* Thanks to the summer holidays, families have spent more time together than usual, and in close proximity, leading to fault lines in the relationship being exposed

* Established routines to which everyone is accustomed throughout the rest of the year are disrupted

* For many parents, the cost of childcare throughout the summer, plus the expense of going on holiday, can be a tipping point

It’s fair to say these factors tend to feature primarily in relationships that are already under strain. And we divorce solicitors also receive queries from couples already separated who, after what might have been a tense summer, seek to change the arrangement imposed on them by a family court.  Add into the mix the undeniable tensions created by the pandemic and there’s no doubt many relationships have had their fault lines exposed in a very unforgiving way.

What happens next?

Although the No-Fault Divorce Act received Royal Assent in June 2020, the reforms have not yet come into force. Ministers announced that the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 will come into force on 6 April 2022, allowing married couples to divorce without assigning blame or fault.

This means that your divorce petition must prove the marriage has irretrievably broken down by evidencing one of five, specific, statutory facts:

* adultery

* unreasonable behaviour

* desertion, and you have been separated for two years (in practice, this is rare, and difficult to prove)

* two years’ separation, with agreement by both that there should be a divorce (and it’s worth considering that this two years of separation in itself provides a “cooling-off” period – a time for reflection)

* five years’ separation (the consent of the Respondent is not needed)

Although there is no legal requirement for you to appoint a solicitor to handle your divorce and prepare your petition on your behalf, people who attempt to conduct their own divorces without the support and advice of a solicitor are often not aware of the issues it could present in the future, particularly those relating to finances.

For example, finalising your divorce itself is not the only element to separation. Whilst the finances are inextricably linked, a clean break order is required from the Court to sever your link from one another financially. In the absence of getting a clean break order from the court, your spouse – even after divorce – has the capacity to make an application against your estate.

Therefore (hypothetically) should you win the lottery post-separation, your former spouse could make an application for a portion of your winnings.

The best thing to do is speak to a family law solicitor

Doubtless you won’t be surprised then when I say your best course of action is to seek the advice of a family law solicitor as soon as possible.

Whatever the reason, if you or someone you know needs the support of a Family Law Solicitor this September or indeed at any time please do get in touch. We’re here to help you.

Why is it safe to arbitrate?

arbitration

Why is it safe to arbitrate?

The Family Court is strongly in support of the parties using Arbitration as a means of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) for financial matters so that cases can reach resolution in a speedier manner.  Partner Liz Cowell explains.

 

18 months into the Covid-19 crisis and practitioners are finding that contested proceedings for financial settlement following a divorce are taking many months, if not years, to resolve.

This is partially because the Family Court is flooded with urgent Children Act cases and applications for protection from domestic violence.  These cases are understandably given precedents over financial matters and have increased during the pandemic.

Consent Order

The process itself to obtain financial relief from the court is a one-size-fits-all, the parties having to attend at least two court hearings before the case proceeds to trial, when they find themselves unable to agree a Consent Order.

Due to the overburdened family list, hearings are frequently “bumped” usually for the benefit of urgent Children Act proceedings.

Arbitration

It is the case that the Family Court itself is strongly in support of the parties using Arbitration as a means of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) for financial matters so that cases can reach resolution in a speedier manner.  When an arbitration takes place, an award is made by the arbitrator which is then turned into a Consent Order which the court will ratify.

The advantages of using arbitration is that it provides complete privacy, there is consistency, it is a speedier process and although the arbitrator needs to be paid it is cost efficient as there needs to be far less attendance at court and the process can be fine tuned to each and every separate application.

The Family Court’s support for arbitration could not be more clearly set out than in a recent High Court decision of Mr Justice Mostyn A -v- A [2021] EWHC1889 (FAM).

In this case the husband, who had agreed to arbitrate then chose not to be bound by the arbitrator’s decision and tried to get the matter set aside, using an expensive route to appeal to the High Court.  He failed.  Mr Justice Mostyn set out clearly in his judgment the correct way to pursue a challenge to an award – and he also found for the wife.

Hopefully his decision will help to persuade the parties that the process of arbitration provides closure, and the common excuse of some practitioners – that there is no proper means of appeal – has been finally put to bed.

Mostyn J emphasised a previous High Court decision of Lady Justice King in Hayley -v- Hayley [2020] EWCACIV1369 which confirms that a “challenge to an arbitral award should be dealt with broadly the same way and subject to the same principles as a financial remedy appeal in the Family Court from a District Judge to a Circuit Judge” and that this was how he was going to proceed to deal with the husband’s various applications before him.  He helpfully added an Appendix to his judgment which gives clear guidance to practitioners as to how to challenge an Arbitral Award, thus giving practitioners protection before proceeding in this manner.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised here, please do get in touch today. We are here to help you.

I want a divorce: your step-by-step guide

divorce procedure heather

I want a divorce: your step-by-step guide

“I want a divorce.” But what is the process – what do you need to know? Heather Lucy, family law solicitor, is here to help you with a step-by-step guide covering the divorce procedure.

Special Procedure

Don’t be frightened by this term.  All it means is that when you apply for a divorce in England and Wales, the process, in the vast majority of undefended cases (that is, a case where one of you wants to divorce and the other does not oppose), is called Special Procedure.  All this means is that a judge will consider the divorce petition on paper and neither you nor your spouse will need to attend court to explain why your marriage has broken down.

Please bear in mind there is no such thing as a “quickie” divorce, no matter how many times you might read about this in the media. If you want more details on the length of time a divorce might take, please take a look here.

It’s also important to remember that the reason for the breakdown of your marriage rarely impacts on how the finances are divided.  It is a common misconception for example that adultery makes a difference – more details here. The court will deal with the financial consequences of the end of the marriage separately from the process of obtaining the divorce itself. You do not need to wait to resolve financial arrangements before divorcing, but you should not divorce without first getting advice how it may affect you – I really want to stress this point.

Before you apply for a divorce, you will need either your original marriage certificate or certified copy, as well as a certified translation if your marriage was abroad and the document is not in English.

Applying for a divorce

The divorce procedure is started by sending to the court a divorce application known as the Petition. The party making the application is known as the Petitioner, the receiving party is known as the Respondent, and either party to the marriage can apply to the court for a divorce.

Where possible, we will try to agree with your spouse which party will initiate the process and the grounds for divorce.  This will then allow the divorce procedure to continue on an undefended basis.

Grounds for divorce

There is only one ground for divorce, namely that the marriage has “irretrievably broken down”. To evidence this, the petitioner (applicant) for the divorce will need to rely upon one of

The Five Facts

In the Petition, the Petitioner has to prove that the marriage has irretrievably broken down by evidencing one of five specific statutory facts:

– Adultery

– Unreasonable behaviour

– Desertion (in practice, this is rare, and difficult to prove)

– two years’ separation with agreement by both that there should be a divorce

– five years’ separation (the consent of the Respondent is not needed)

The most common facts relied upon are adultery, or unreasonable behaviour.

The Decree Nisi

Once the divorce petition is issued by the court, it is sent to the Respondent who then usually has 14 days (possibly longer if the Respondent doesn’t live in the UK) to complete return the Acknowledgement of Service to the court.

The court will then send a copy of the Acknowledgement to the Petitioner who then completes and files an Application for Decree Nisi and a supporting Statement.

When the papers are received by the court they will be considered by a judge who, if satisfied with the ground for divorce, will issue a Certificate of Entitlement for Decree Nisi. This will list a hearing date several weeks later, at which the Decree Nisi will be pronounced. This hearing can also be used to consider any applications for or objections to any costs orders sought, if not already agreed.

Do bear in mind that the Decree Nisi is actually an interim stage in the divorce procedure – it isn’t the final divorce, it is a document that says that the court does not see any reason why you cannot divorce.  Once you have your Decree Nisi, you can apply for the

Decree Absolute

Usually, the Petitioner waits until the finances have been agreed and approved by the Court before applying for the final decree of divorce, known as the Decree Absolute.  If the divorce has taken place before the finances are resolved and one of the parties dies then, potentially, benefits to which the other would have been entitled to by virtue of the marriage will be lost (an obvious example is a spouse’s pension).

International divorce procedure

Some people may be entitled to begin divorce proceedings in more than one country: if that is the case, we can assist in helping you to decide which is the better jurisdiction for you (and your family) as the divorce process varies widely from country to country, even within Europe, including as to financial outcome, timing and arrangements for your children. Speed can be of the essence in making the decision.  If you think this might apply to your situation, please do get in touch without delay.

Respectful divorce

Finally, I’d like to stress that here at McAlister Family Law we believe very strongly in achieving what we call a respectful divorce, wherever possible.  Our managing partner, Amanda McAlister, has spoken about this extensively in the media and shares her advice here as to the best way forward for couples who are divorcing.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised here, please do get in touch today. We are here to help you.

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