Legal Advice or Legal Information - What is the Difference?

At Cambridge Family Matters, we encourage our clients to work out when they need legal information relevant to their case and when they need legal advice from a solicitor, providing them with ‘regulated’ services (regulated by the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority (SRA) which benefits from indemnity insurance to cover poor ‘advice’). We believe we fit into the new innovations in law, which are encouraged by the SRA, to distinguish between legal advice (regulated services) and legal information and support (unregulated services).

However, change moves slowly in the legal world. Despite the SRA’s plans to introduce freelance solicitors and to allow solicitors to practise from unregulated firms such as Cambridge Family Matters, with its new Standards & Regulations going live in November of this year, there is much resistance from the legal profession, focusing around which work needs to be insured and which work doesn’t.

At Cambridge Family Matters, we can’t help feeling that some lawyers are missing the point of innovation. Sometimes, the only legal advice separating couples need is whether they need legal advice or financial advice in the first place. Many separating couples feel perfectly comfortable to seek information about the law as it applies to their own circumstances, rather than advice about achieving their best position, and to then make their own decisions for their family. This is often how mediation works, with lawyer mediators often providing legal information within the process of mediation, and not legal advice, then facilitating a discussion between two people to support them to come to their own decisions, to take responsibility for those own decisions, whilst facilitating a process which achieves an outcome that would be acceptable to the judge who oversees and rubber stamps their ‘Consent Order’. Indemnity insurance costs very little for mediation and mediation costs considerably less than legal advice. The mediator contracts to give accurate legal advice and to steer the process by managing power imbalances, for example, but the client assumes the risk for their own decisions, subject to being given accurate legal information and being advised by their mediator to take one-off legal advice on their decisions.

Clients might take a one-off piece of advice from their lawyer at the outset or might double check the agreement they have reached at the end of the process, and they might want the security of knowing that this piece of information is solid advice that they can rely on, complete with indemnity insurance cover for ‘wrong’, inaccurate or incomplete advice, but do they need indemnity insurance and the higher fees of legal advice at every step along the way? We believe our clients ought to be given enough information to decide this for themselves.

At the moment, however, the chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel has strongly attacked the SRA for changing its insurance requirements for freelance solicitors without giving a reason. Sarah Chambers said allowing freelance solicitors to provide unreserved services - so legal information rather than legal advice - without the need for indemnity insurance would “lower consumer protection and exacerbate confusion”.

She argues that to vary protection dependent on whether a freelance solicitor is doing reserved and/or non-reserved work, so whether advising a client how to proceed or giving legal information to a client upon which they might make their own decision, will lead to consumer confusion and unjustifiable discrepancy in protection.

“It will lead to potential for arguments about what is reserved and non-reserved by insurance companies, as well as add more complexity to an already complex landscape. Ms Chambers said it was “vital” that freelance solicitors were adequately insured, whether or not they were providing reserved services. “There is simply no rationale for this inconsistent treatment of unreserved legal activities by solicitors depending on whether they undertake reserved activities. “We know that consumers have very little awareness of the difference between regulated and unregulated providers, let alone the varying protections that come with different service providers.” As explained above, this is exactly how mediation is dealt with and any advocate for a less adversarial family law system would already be mediating clients who do not seek to battle through their separation and would know this.

For the time being, the SRA is continuing to consult on this whilst the panel strongly disagrees with this transfer of risk and is concerned that the risk might be transferred to the consumer, who will be unable to access the Compensation Fund. The proposed insurance arrangements have already been strongly criticised by the Law Society.

At Cambridge Family Matters, we believe that the way forward is for the consumer to be educated, at the outset of their legal process, about the differing levels of service, from advice to information, and the consequent levels of risk, and fees. This would be something that legal advisers could ‘advise’ on. However it might then lead to lower billing targets if some clients then pay lower rates when they only need legal support or information. On the other hand, early advice with the prospect of lower subsequent fees might also cause more litigants in person to seek legal advice at the outset and not see their cases fail on account of too little information, usually too late. A brave new world from the SRA?

What Divorced Parents Need to Know About Co-Parenting After the Split

Divorce may change the way a family looks, but it does not have to (and shouldn’t) break it completely. Parents who can manage to stay civil  and connected when their marriage ends offer their kid much better outcomes. That’s because kids thrive in stable environments and are better able to handle the world when they have a sense that their mum and dad are co-parenting  to further their child’s interests.

But as idyllic as co-parenting sounds, it’s not as easy as paying child support and hammering out an equitable child custody agreement. Co-parenting presumes a continuing relationship between parents. And the reality is that co-parenting also requires a kind of consideration that may have been difficult to find with an ex-partner in the first place. But if parents can find common ground in the well-being of their child and follow some basic co-parenting rules, things can turn out really good for everyone.

Co-Parenting Requires Positivity and Support

A bad divorce can lead to bad feelings. And those feelings are often valid and even justified. But they are not, in any way, helpful when aired in front of your child.

One of the most toxic things a parent can do after a divorce is tear down their ex in front of their child. It might feel cathartic but it’s terribly destabilizing. That’s particularly true when a child has warm feelings for the other parent. Bad things said about a beloved parent can be internalized by a kid. If they hear a parent is terrible, the child might begin to think the same thing about themselves. In the end, talking bad about an ex can result in alienating a child.

It’s better to reserve airing bad feelings about a spouse to the bar or therapist couch. In front of the kid, there should be nothing but positivity and support.

Co-Parenting Requires Discipline Negotiations

Inconsistent discipline between divorced parents can result in inconsistent behavior from a child. If certain behaviors are allowed at one parent’s home and not at the other, kids can feel confused about expectations and problem behaviors can escalate.

In some cases, a child with inconsistent discipline from divorced parents might begin to compartmentalize parents into good and bad. They may push boundaries with the “good” parent who has less emphasis on discipline while withdrawing from the “bad” parent.

Agreeing on discipline offers children stability between homes. A consistent method of discipline means a kid knows what’s expected and can feel secure to thrive.

Co-Parenting Requires Consistency

Just like discipline, sharing a similar routine between parents’ homes gives children a sense of consistency. More than that, a consistent routine linked to bedtime, wake time and meal schedules helps children maintain wake/sleep and meal rhythms that keep them rested and healthy. A rested and a healthy kid is one who is far more likely to be well behaved.

Co-Parenting Requires Compromise

For many divorced couples, flexibility and compromise were hard enough to find in their marriage, much less after. But being rigid doesn’t work when trying to coordinate two newly separate and likely very distinct lives.

Things happen. Sometimes kids need to be picked up earlier or later. Sometimes meals and bedtimes need to change. Sometimes parents get sick. The point is that these events require parents to be flexible and forgiving. Yes, consistency is important, but not at the cost of ease and harmony.

Co-Parenting Requires More Than a Joint-Custody Agreement

Setting up a joint-custody arrangement with a weekend parent and a weekday parent isn’t the most effective co-parenting. These kinds of custody arrangements often mean that one parent gets to enjoy leisure with their child while the other takes on the weekday responsibilities. Meanwhile, the weekend parent is frozen out of crucial activities like helping with school work and caring for other day-to-day needs.

There are other, more equitable custody arrangements that allow both parents to enjoy quality leisure time and weekday responsibilities. And frankly, it’s good for kids to see parents play with them and take care of them, showing a balance of nurturing and fun.

Co-Parenting Requires Healthy Communication

More than anything, it’s important for parents to remember that they are offering their child an example of communication in stressful times. Kids who see their parents communicating well despite being divorced are gaining important lessons about relating to others during adversity.

Co-parents who yell, argue, snipe or tear each other down when they are together are in serious danger of raising a kid who shows those same behaviors when relationships get strained. That’s not a great proposition, particularly as a kid starts approaching their teens.

Lawyers 'Must Make Way' for Justice Innovation to Take Hold

According to Legal Futures* the leading legal news resource tracking the fast-evolving legal landscape, a report on global access to legal services has identified established legal professions led by lawyers as a block to progress and urged them to step aside in favour of non-lawyer leaders who can be relied on to bring in necessary reforms without self-interest.

Among suggestions for radical change was an increasing role for less-qualified, locally-based paralegals to shoulder some of the work currently reserved to lawyers. At Cambridge Family Matters, this is what we are seeking to deliver - today, by offering legal support services whilst working with legal advisers when legal advice, rather than legal information is required. We offer paralegal services at sensible prices, and dispute resolution options at every turn, to seek to promote access to justice at sensible prices.

It also strongly praised the regulatory model created by the Legal Services Act 2007 as a way to foster innovation and accessibility.

The report was the second taking a global approach to legal services in the space of a week, and also located many problems of legal innovation in the difficulty of reaching the required scale and the context of funding pressures, such as a lack of ‘room to fail’.

The report – Innovating justice: needed and possible – was published this week by a taskforce of Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies.

The Pathfinders is an organisation that counts several United Nations members, including the UK, and UN bodies among its supporters, and the taskforce was co-chaired by justice ministers from Argentina and Sierra Leone and a trade minister from the Netherlands.

The taskforce said there were 244m people around the world in critical need of legal security and the protection of a rule of law, plus another 1.5bn with unmet everyday legal needs and 4.4bn who lacked legal identity.

It said that despite the world becoming more connected by the internet and social media, a trend hastened by urbanisation – possibly speeded up by climate change – there was a justice gap not being bridged by innovation, with a consequent price to be paid in widespread lack of trust in societies.

Key among urgent change needed, the report stressed, was a “mental” shift towards seeing justice not as applying norms to people’s behaviour, but re-framed in terms of their justice needs “and the fairness of their relationships”.

This meant that justice systems run by lawyers and legal practitioners had to give way to non-lawyers, much as in the health sector doctors did “not exclusively run health ministries, hospitals and supervisory bodies”.

The report went on: “The exclusivity of lawyers is unparalleled and contributes to an inward-looking sector that does not innovate.

“This ‘guild’-like system is determined by rules and a culture that make it hugely difficult to participate if you are not from that closed group.”

Instead, it advocated that justice systems should be run by others: “Psychologists, social scientists, data analysts, designers, neurologists, social workers, public and business administrators, and critically users – must be let in.”

The taskforce called lawyers dominating the direction of justice the “robe model”, which lawyers worldwide and governments had to recognise was “at the end of its life-cycle”.

“What attorneys, judges and prosecutors do, the procedures they follow when solving disputes or coping with crimes, yes even what young lawyers have to learn at university, all this has been laid down in precise rules…

“These rules are predominantly only made by the legal profession itself. This works like a powerful closed community, stifling innovation, keeping out technology, complicating informal justice in communities and evidence-based conflict resolution.”

Less qualified and regulated paralegal “accessible justice helpers” close to the communities where they worked, could be one solution to closing the justice gap, possibly paid for by legal insurance schemes, the authors said.

Improved contracts might also be a way of creating the necessary scale to effect global change, they suggested.

They highlighted the work of LegalZoom – which bought Wakefield firm Beaumont Legal in the UK – which they said research showed had helped to lower the average price of legal services by “increasing beneficial competition”.

They also highlighted various uses of data-driven technology in helping resolve disputes more cheaply, for instance in China: “For civil and criminal matters, the Shanghai High Court has led the way, offering AI bot-based legal advice via WeChat, one of China’s most popular social media platforms.”

They stressed that innovations in the justice sector required what they called an “ecosystem” that allowed experimentation and failure, with the support of “ministries of justice, councils of judiciaries, law societies, bar associations, and universities”.

Also, they recommended legal education had to change radically to engineer a break with the past: “As long as law schools teach lawyers what they have taught them in the past, most lawyers will continue to do what they do…

The curriculum needs to be adapted to include training in skills that will allow lawyers to work more evidence based and data-driven.

“In addition, the system change that is needed will require a lot of justice entrepreneurship, which can be taught.”

In relation to regulation, they said the Legal Services Act shift from a focus on regulating people to regulating services, “which could be provided by a host of innovative people and businesses”, meant the regime had the flexibility to accommodate new models.

“Moreover, it fosters responsible competition to help drive costs down and quality and accessibility up. It is an inspirational model that deserves to be followed and developed further.”

*Legal Futures is written by professional journalists, it provides cutting-edge daily news coverage on alternative business structures, new market entrants, regulatory change and innovation in all its forms.

Separating Immigrant Children at the US Border vs Parental Alienation

Families being separated at the US border is only the latest in a long history of people being torn apart from those they love the most. From war zones to asylum seekers, but also closer to home, our children who are alienated from one of their parents following divorce, we need to learn the lessons from history.

Immigrants to the US border and families in high conflict where children ‘choose’ to reject a parent on divorce have one thing in common – the trauma of separation is not one singular, traumatic event in the children’s lives. For children in families fleeing war or poverty and children who have been living in extremely conflicted family dynamics, childhood trauma is already part of their life experience. The bonds that exist between family support us in the face of adversity. Children who are separated from their parents, experience trauma that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

We know from mainstream psychological theory that children who have experienced trauma:

  • Develop problems forming relationships with adults, poor self-regulation, negative thinking and a hyper-sensitive fear response;
  • Learn to be wary of adults, even those who appear to be reliable, since they’ve been treated poorly or betrayed;
  • Have trouble managing strong emotions and develop the belief that what’s happened to them is their fault; and,
  • Think everyone is out to get them and become hyper-aware of perceived danger, leading to anxiety and chronic irritability.

We also know that the longer the separation, the more toxic stress the child experiences. If we quickly reconnect families at the US border but leave a child that has become alienated from a parent for years, this toxic stress is the invisible but unfortunate reality for that child. Toxic stress differs from standard stressors in life in that toxic stress is a stress in which the child is not ‘buffered’ by a parent to learn to rise to a challenge and win. Instead the child has to learn to live without that parent’s help, guidance and support, unendingly.

Toxic stress activates the body’s stress response, activating the threat system and engaging the amygdala. When we keep activating those circuits, so when a child is continually exposed to toxic stress in a war zone or in a high conflict household, these circuits become harder to shut off. Children are already especially not good at regulating their emotions but when separated from parents, these children are at further risk of psychological harm. Parental buffering, that is the help that parents provide to switch off those stress responses, is even more important to these children and the absence of this buffering leaves the child continually exposed to toxic stress pressures which will have a more enduring effect on their brain development, causing both short term and long-term consequences.

Even when children are reunified with their parents, there is a continued risk of harm for the child. The parent will have experienced his or her own stress responses and this can often lead to confusion and misunderstandings. The parent might well also still feel fearful and anxious, yet parents need to be able to feel safe to be able to usefully buffer their child’s emotions. The disruption at the family level that is caused by divorce can further increase the effects on the child.

We know the adverse effects of separating children from their parents, yet it is still happening even in places where there is no war or immigration – in our family courts. False allegations and brainwashed ‘wishes and feelings’ of the child cannot be allowed to continue to obstruct the emotional wellbeing of our children. The incoming Head of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, has indicated that he is in favour of early intervention, to give clarity in terms of the expectations of time with both parents and to quickly respond where there are allegations of domestic abuse or alienation. We look forward to that day, but, in the meantime, alienated children need to be assessed by psychologists who can understand the underlying family dynamics, they need psychological support to be able to reconnect with their once loved parent and they are not served well by the current situation whereby often, even in leading High Court cases, we hear that you can’t force a teenager to physically live anywhere so we will just have to give up.

Research clearly shows the damage done to children who lose their caregivers, the impact on their development and the trauma that lives on in their bodies and minds and affects how they think, feel and respond to life events. There is nothing worse than when a child loses their innocent trust in the world around them. Every member of a family is harmed by forced separation, but it is children who suffer the most. We have a responsibility to take care of those who are most vulnerable and to ensure their wellbeing. At Cambridge Family Matters, we are dedicated to finding the most cost-effective route to helping alienated children, whilst we wait, and lobby, for a better system.

If you have any queries about alienation or no longer seeing your children, you can contact Belinda on 01223 355912 and discuss how best to try to remedy the situation, now.

Digital Divorce Matters

The new ‘fully digitised’ divorce application was launched on the 1st of May and enables the whole divorce process to be completed online, including payment and uploading supporting evidence. According to GOV.UK, “More than 1,000 petitions were issued through the new system during the testing phase – with 91% of people saying they were satisfied with the service.”

Apparently, “This simpler and less technical online service has already contributed to a 95% drop in the number of applications being returned because of mistakes, when compared with paper forms.”

Whilst this is a positive step forward, it is worthy of note that most users of the system will still need to understand the legal process of divorce because it is, as yet, not sufficiently streamlined to make for a knowingly straightforward, conflict free process for those who are unfamiliar and there are many pitfalls which can encourage conflict at precisely the moment when it is important for both parties to be trying to seek to work together to make separate arrangements for the future.

So, for example, in divorce petitions alleging adultery, there is the issue of whether or not to name the ‘co-respondent’, that is, the person with whom you allege your spouse has committed adultery. Naming the co-respondent is optional – the requirement to name them, if their identity was known, was abolished many years ago. However, the new divorce forms almost seem to encourage petitioners to name and shame adulterers. The motivation to name the co-respondent by the wounded party is easy to understand. Therefore, without simple advice on this matter, many petitioners are likely to make the mistake of naming the co-respondent when there is no need to, thereby causing themselves a lot of additional stress in the process.

Similarly, in petitions alleging unreasonable behaviour, it is not always immediately obvious to a petitioner just what level of allegation is necessary for a judge to recognise that the marriage has ended. As in the recent, and ongoing, Owens v Owens case, we can see that it is easy to cite allegations that do not meet the bar for the granting of a decree nisi. Equally, it is very easy to sledgehammer a set of such allegations which causes significant distress, just as financial negotiations are getting underway. Knowledge of the system, here, is key.

Then there is the issue of the costs of the divorce. Even if you do it yourself you will have to pay the court fee on the divorce petition (unless you are entitled to an exemption), and this currently stands at £550. If you are seeking to keep costs to a minimum, you might decide to tick the box, asking the court to order your spouse to pay your costs, and even the co-respondent, if you have named them. However, you may actually end up wishing you hadn’t claimed costs as this can make things more complicated, by potentially encouraging the respondent not to cooperate, or even to defend the divorce.

Many people who do their own divorce without legal advice may not appreciate that there is a connection between the divorce and the financial settlement, and that it may not be in their interests to finalise the divorce by applying for the decree absolute until the financial settlement has been sorted out. Ending the marriage has consequences, for example in relation to the rights of a spouse who does not own the matrimonial home, and in relation to pensions. It is therefore absolutely essential that anyone applying for a decree absolute knows and understands the consequences for them of ending the marriage, before they apply.

Whilst the government is moving family law forward, progress is still moving at a snail’s pace and there is still no guarantee that the online process will make it any more possible to take your own undefended application through the court process yourself, without advice and without pitfalls.

If you would like help to fill out your divorce application, you can contact Belinda on 01223 355912.

The Cost of Fact-Finding Hearings

Last week, in the case of  JY v RY [2018] EWFC B16 (27 April 2018), district Judge Read published a shocking testimony of the current crisis facing family law in England and Wales.

District Jude Read was presiding over a fact-finding hearing, in which he had to make findings on way or another in relation to allegations of domestic abuse, including rape, made by the mother against the father. In family law, fact-finding hearings are required where it is necessary for a judge to make findings on allegations made by one parent against the other, in order to make decisions about the safety of contact for the couple’s children.

In this case, neither parent was represented (they were not eligible for Legal Aid) and so the judge undertook the questioning himself, rather than have both parties questioning one another and in the absence of the standard format, where the judge hears the questioning put to both parties by their legal representatives (solicitors or barristers).

The judge worked from a pre-prepared set of questions, submitted by the parties. However, the mother had been too stressed to prepare any questions for the father. The judge was then not able to complete his questioning because the mother left the witness box half way through her questioning and could not be persuaded to return.

Thus, the judge was unable to make all of the findings that were required of him as some of the evidence had not been tested. He said:

“I am in little doubt that had one or both of these parents been represented, the fact-finding process and probably outcome would have been very different..”

That is a very damning indictment of the status quo for family law. He went on to say:

“The lack of legal representation gravely affected the fairness and efficiency of the process of questioning both parents ..

No English or Welsh criminal court would proceed as this court had to, in the absence of representation for parties dealing with such grave allegations ..

I therefore think there is a very strong likelihood that the outcome of the fact-finding hearing would have been different and most probably a truer reflection of what really happened, had the parents been represented.”

The judge did make some findings of domestic abuse, in relation to the evidence he had been able to hear. Based on those he said that: “There is always the fear in the mid of the Court that the questioning of an alleged victim about their abuse merely prolongs that abuse by another means. Given my findings in this case, limited though they are to only the first few allegations, I think that fear is borne out here.” He is basically suggesting that even when the questions were put by the judge, himself, this current process is tantamount to being abusive towards victims.

Whilst it is hard to see what else District Judge Read could have done to improve this process for the family, it is very worrying that a judge must conduct a trial (a district judge cannot refuse a trial), must make findings which, if not proven, require him to make a finding that, as a matter of law, some of the mother’s allegations didn’t happen because they weren’t (tried and) proved, and then publish a judgement, telling the world that those conclusions were probably wrong.

The whole point of a fact-finding hearing is undermined if the court itself has to acknowledge that it is probably not an accurate reflection of the facts and the risks. How is that helping to keep children safe?

There is no news of a replacement for the lost Bill that fell when the General Election was called last year, which would have at least dealt with the direct cross examination of witnesses in situations involving domestic abuse. Even if these provisions do re-emerge in a new Bill, they will not solve the problem faced by the mother in being significantly debilitated by a lack of her own legal representation and preparation, simply because she did not meet the eligibility criteria for legal aid (possibly because of the amount of capital in her property).

Putting aside the vast amounts of public money that is spent on fact-finding hearings like this in court time and judicial salaries, to then arrive at an unreliable result, there must be a better way to get to the bottom of cases where serious allegations and safeguarding issues can be resolved.

In the absence of coherent government support for people in these circumstances, Cambridge Family Matters, we help you to put together your case and seek cost effective expert help and advice in matters such as these, whilst keeping your costs to an absolute minimum. If the mother in this case had had access to a conference with Direct Access barrister, she would have had a coherent set of questions for the judge to put to her children’s father and would have received some advice in terms of setting her expectations for the day. This could have been achieved for about the same cost as the initial court application.

At Cambridge Family Matters, we can steer you towards these services, and keep the costs of any ancillary legal support that you might find necessary, to an absolute minimum. As the judge in this case has explained, the legal process cannot guarantee fairness without some preparation, understanding of the issues and the law that governs your case.

If you would like to discuss fact-finding hearings or any other children matter, you can contact Belinda on 01223 355912.

Respond Quickly to Parental Alienation

What children of divorce most need is to maintain healthy and strong relationships with both of their parents, and to be shielded from their parents' conflicts. However, in some high conflict divorces, one parent the “programs” a child to denigrate the other, “targeted” parent, in an effort to undermine and interfere with the child's relationship with that parent. This is often a sign of a parent’s inability to separate from the couple conflict and focus on the needs of the child.

Such denigration results in the child’s emotional rejection of the targeted parent, and the loss of a capable and loving parent from the child's life. Psychiatrist Richard Gardner developed the concept of "parental alienation syndrome" 20 years ago, defining it as:

     "...a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child's campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent's indoctrinations and the child's own contributions to the vilification of the target parent."

The child’s views of the targeted parent are almost exclusively negative, to the point that the parent is demonized and seen as evil.

As Amy Baker writes, parental alienation involves a set of strategies, including

  • bad-mouthing the other parent,
  • limiting contact with that parent,
  • erasing the other parent from the life and mind of the child (forbidding discussion and pictures of the other parent),
  • forcing the child to reject the other parent,
  • creating the impression that the other parent is dangerous,
  • forcing the child to choose between the parents by means of threats of withdrawal of affection, and
  • belittling and limiting contact with the extended family of the targeted parent.

There is now scholarly consensus that severe alienation is abusive to children and is a largely overlooked form of child abuse, as child welfare and divorce practitioners are often unaware of or minimize its extent. For the child, parental alienation is a serious mental condition, based on a false belief that the alienated parent is dangerous and unworthy. The severe effects of parental alienation on children are well-documented

  • low self-esteem and self-hatred,
  • lack of trust, 
  • depression, and
  • substance abuse and other forms of addiction are widespread,

as children lose the capacity to give and accept love from a parent.

Self-hatred is particularly disturbing among affected children, as children internalize the hatred targeted toward the alienated parent, are led to believe that the alienated parent did not love or want them, and experience severe guilt related to betraying the alienated parent. Their depression is rooted in feelings of being unloved by one of their parents, and from separation from that parent, while being denied the opportunity to mourn the loss of the parent or to even talk about them. Alienated children also typically have conflicted or distant relationships with the alienating parent also and are at high risk of becoming alienated from their own children.

Every child has a fundamental right and need for an unthreatened and loving relationship with both parents. To be denied that right by one parent, without sufficient justification such as abuse or neglect, is itself a form of child abuse. Since it is the child who is being violated by a parent's alienating behaviors, it is the child who is being alienated from the other parent. Children who have undergone forced separation from one parent, in the absence of abuse are highly subject to post-traumatic stress, and reunification efforts in these cases should proceed carefully and with sensitivity.

Research has shown that many alienated children can transform quickly from refusing or staunchly resisting the rejected parent to being able to show and receive love from that parent, followed by an equally swift shift back to the alienated position when back in the orbit of the alienating parent. Alienated children seem to have a secret wish for someone to call their bluff, compelling them to reconnect with the parent they claim to hate. While children’s stated wishes regarding parental contact in contested custody should be considered, they should not be determinative, especially in suspected cases of alienation.

If you suspect that your child is being alienated or has been alienated, it is important to act quickly because the longer the alienation continues, the harder it is to reunify parent and child at a later date. If you would like further information about alienation and the options available to you, you can call Belinda on 01223 355912 and find out more.

Litigants in Person not an Unwelcome Problem, Judges Told

Judges have been told that litigants in person (LiPs) should not be seen as an unwelcome problem for the court. The Equal Treatment Bench Book, a 422-page guidance on equal treatment in court, issued by the Judicial College in February 2018, aims to ensure that people leave court 'conscious of having appeared before a fair-minded tribunal'.

The book has comprehensive chapters on:

old book close up.jpg
  • litigants in person and lay representatives;
  • children;
  • young people and vulnerable adults;
  • physical disability;
  • mental disability;
  • mental capacity;
  • gender;
  • modern slavery;
  • racism;
  • cultural/ethnic differences;
  • antisemitism and Islamophobia;
  • religion;
  • sexual orientation;
  • social exclusion and poverty; and
  • transgender people.

The book states that, to ensure equality before the law, a judge must be 'free of prejudice and partiality and conduct themselves, in and out of court, so as to give no ground for doubting their ability and willingness to decide cases solely on their legal and factual merits, as appears from the exercise of an objective, independent and impartial judgment (to paraphrase Lord Bingham)'.

Judges are advised to put themselves in the position of those appearing before them and keep language simple. 'A thoughtless comment, throwaway remark, unwise joke or even facial expression may confirm or create an impression of prejudice,' the guide says.

Litigants in person 'should not be seen as an unwelcome problem for the court or tribunal’ and judges are urged to ensure they have every reasonable opportunity to present their case.

Tips include making realistic directions, going back over key dates at the end of a case management hearing, and using names instead of labels such as 'respondents'. Judges are advised to explain to litigants in person that the ‘archaic’ phrase ‘trial bundle’ means a tagged or lever arch file of documents.

The Judicial College predicts that the number of litigants in person will continue 'as a result of financial constraints and the consequences of the legal aid reforms'. The book says litigants in person are increasingly appearing in the Court of Appeal in criminal, civil and family cases. Some have represented themselves at first instance. Others, having been represented in a lower court, take their own cases to appeal due to public funding being withdrawn after the first instance hearing.

The book acknowledges that McKenzie friends, such as ourselves, and lay representatives contribute significantly to access to justice. However, 'the judge has to identify those situations where such support is beneficial and distinguish circumstances where it should not be allowed,' it adds. Circumstances where McKenzie support should not be allowed would be when the McKenzie friend is following their own agenda, as can be the case with McKenzie Friends with little legal knowledge or training but a passion for a particular cause.

At Cambridge Family Matters, we welcome this new guidance. We are familiar with the problems that litigants in person can experience at the hands of the family court system and we fully support any new measures to bring affordable access to justice for the 2 out of 3 people with a legal problem who do not seek advice from a solicitor.

To read the Equal Treatment Bench Book, look for the Litigants in Person section at

For further information about McKenzie Friend family law assistance, you can call Belinda on 01223 355912 or email her at