A family court judge sends a message to proposed litigants in private law cases to consider using Family Mediation Services

HHJ Stephen Wildblood QC called for the need to remove unnecessary, high conflict private law litigation from the family court.  He said that the court must be able to deal with legal services that the public need and deserve.

 In the case of Re: B (a child) (Unnecessary Private Law Applications) (25.09.2020)

The judge’s comments were directed at the unprecedented amount of work the court is dealing with and of his wish for the court to be able to provide members of the public with the legal service that they deserve and need.

He referred to the risks posed by the number of high conflict private law cases which continue to clog up the court.

The judge explained that court time is being used to deal with non legal issues such as dealing with requests surrounding handover venues on the M4 and which junction to use for purposes of child contact handovers. Or, that concern which parent should hold the children’s passports (in a case where there was no suggestion that either parent would detain the children outside the jurisdiction) and as to how should contact be arranged to take place on a Sunday afternoon?

There was a plea made for common sense to prevail and for a clear message to be imparted to clients and lawyers to make use of family mediation to deal with issues such as above.

The message from the judge was “not to bring your private law litigation to the Family court here unless it is genuinely necessary for you to do so. He said, “You should settle your differences (or those of your clients) away from court, except where that is not possible”.

“If you do bring unnecessary cases to this court, you will be criticised, and sanctions may be imposed upon you. There are many other ways to settle disagreements”.

He referred to mediation.

What has led to the courts speaking out?

Reference has been made to family breakdown which in itself is not necessarily a legal dispute, although children are frequently at the centre of a disagreement.

The family courts need help.   My understanding is that too many people are applying to the court about issues that do not constitute legal disputes.

So, where can families who are locked in conflict obtain support?

I read about another recent plea for help surrounding the worrying and damaging effects of parental conflict on children and to a rising number of cases of distressed children as a result of family stress and break up due to the consequences of lockdown and the pandemic.

As an accredited family mediator, I am aware there are worrying stories about children being at the centre of high conflict disputes between separating parents. Mediators are at the focus of disputes between parents who are going through relationship break up.

For parents who are unable to deal with this on their own, there is a need for services available to help to try and minimise conflict in order to help children.

In a Mediation case, one of my first questions to parents is:  How do you communicate?  Where is the common ground?   People are so anxious about the expectations placed upon them by the pandemic.  Where are the children when you argue?

It is vital to be able to hear from each parent and for each of us to listen with regard to   what arrangements they can commit to and to give opportunity to discuss and resolve the genuine difficulties surrounding the parental separation?

Within mediation, our endeavour is to check the sources of anger and which need to be calmed in the hope  that parents can agree together a clear message that they have  agreed to give to children and   in the simplest and most child appropriate language. Importantly, there must be no blame attached to such statements.

Simple questions to ask such as How to avoid unnecessary rows and why these occur? must take place alongside questions as to: How do we talk to one another, especially when facing stressful situations?  Why do we think that children understand this frankly quite scary behaviour of adults when a child has no concept of how to process such confusing adult emotions?

Parents who are considering mediation as an appropriate  way of resolving  the causes of stress is a vital  part of  family mediation screening and to check out the safety needs of children.

The damaging effect of frequent, intense and poorly resolved parental conflict on children’s mental health is a genuine concern. There are organisations who try to work together to help with this and who are offering help for parents in ongoing conflict situations.

Escalating family stress as a result of the corona virus pandemic has meant more children than ever before are exposed to the damaging effects of intense parental conflict.

These organisations are seeking help for parents who are in conflict to receive support and for assessments to be available using resources such as child mental health services and even schools.

They are seeking local authorities, NHS services and courts to offer relationship support services to parents and for nationwide access to a government programme to reduce parental conflict.

If you feel that family mediation could help you please family mediation services.

Tricia Muzalewski, Accredited Law Society and Family Mediation Council Mediator                                                                                                                                                                                             February 2021