Social policy

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In keeping with the spirit of Family Dispute Resolution Week  I am pleased to be able to offer another video snippet of my chat with Stephen Sulemeyer, an expert in collaborative law practice in California.

It is ironic to hear this week that most members of the public who have a family law dispute would rather go to court than use an alternative dispute resolution option  such as mediation.  I think this is a great pity and I discussed the failings of policy planning from the Ministry of Justice in this regard here.

For now, please have a look at Stephen answering another common question from the public about collaborative law: is it suitable for everyone?  I think his answer is honest and encouraging.  Collaborative law, like mediation and family arbitration, cannot be a panacea, but to grizzled family law litigators like me, the willingness of a client to at least consider these alternatives to court, is a no-brainer.

 

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I was very fortunate, recently, to attend a training session with other practitioners of collaborative law, hosted by Stephen H. Sulmeyer, J.D, Ph.D.  Stephen is a charming man normally to be found in his native Californian habitat.  The members of my collaborative law group, Brightpod, managed to entice him down to Brighton whilst he was on his travels in England.

Stephen is a collaboratively trained lawyer, mediator and psychologist.  Added to which, his fondness for quoting Keats during the training makes him a top bloke in my estimation.

Stephen offered some fascinating insights into collaborative law and laid down some challenges to the lawyers in my group (I put my hand up here) to get out of their comfort zone if they wanted to offer really effective solutions for families in conflict.

Stephen was good enough to allow us to film part of the training day and I’m pleased  to offer some of the video snippets below.  The only downside is that Stephen had to contend with an interviewer (err… that would be me) who was so enchanted by the answers that he kept forgetting the questions.

What is collaborative law all about?

Please have a look at the video below where Stephen provides an introduction to collaborative law.

 

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I put up a post recently about Dispute Resolution Week: please read it here.   This takes place, as I type, in various forms and guises across the country all this week.  The aim: to promote alternatives to the adversarial court process for people with family law disputes.

Resolution is the organisation behind the initiative, driven in many different ways by the members of Resolution: lawyers, mediators, collaborative practitioners and other professionals who are committed to keeping families out of court.

I’ve posted a video from Resolution below telling you all about the Dispute Resolution Week initiative.

I’ve got my hands on some great video content dealing with collaborative law  courtesy of my local collaborative group called Brightpod and I’ll post that just as soon as I can.

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Family dispute resolution week divorce finance toolkit

BECAUSE ONE SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL

I want to say a few words about Family Dispute Resolution Week.  I was in Nottingham a few weeks ago to attend Resolution’s Dispute Resolution Conference.  It’s the third annual conference in a row and I keep going back because I meet lawyers, mediators and collaborative practitioners who are utterly committed to pushing the boundaries of their own practices to provide better outcomes for families.  This usually means keeping families out of the court process. So I learn a lot and I come away feeling inspired.  Which is just as well when having to deal with the obstacles that get in the way of real change.  Let me refer to the usual suspects.

The usual suspects

It is not easy to push boundaries in any professional practice.  Here are a few of the obstacles in the way of pushing family dispute resolution:

  • Public ignorance.  People simply don’t know enough about the dispute resolution options that are available.  Resolution has been pushing the options for many years and any reader who is unaware of the rich resources on the Resolution website needs to hop over there pretty quickly and bookmark it for future, constant reference.
  • Professional indifference. In a sense, lawyers are the gatekeepers to the dispute resolution options as far as the public are concerned.  This is one of the reasons that the loss of 1,000 high street legal firms in the last 12 months caused the take-up of mediation to be sliced in half.  But I still think the lawyers who are left could do a better job of ‘selling’ the merits of mediation, collaborative law or (the new kid on the block) arbitration. Perhaps some lawyers are worried about turning away business if they cannot offer mediation or the collaborative discipline.  Well, call me old-fashioned but lawyers should put the interests of their clients first.  So, if a family breakdown is crying out for dispute resolution instead of the family court trial by combat then the lawyers need to pack their clients off to a mediator or a collaborative practitioner.  Better still, they should get trained up themselves to be able to offer this resource to their clients.
  • Political ideology.  The UK government ‘discovered’ mediation relatively recently, in the same way that European settlers, wading out of the  American surf 450 years ago, ‘discovered’ the New World.  It had always been there.  But this new-found zeal for mediation unfortunately coincided with the financial meltdown: the perfect backdrop against which to attack legal aid, a pillar of the post-war welfare settlement between state and citizens.  Even better, this astonishing piece of vandalism against the body politic would serve to stick it hard and fast to two despised constituencies: the ‘undeserving’ poor and the fat cat lawyers.  In short: get rid of as much family legal aid as possible and force the low income  punters to run from the lawyers and into the welcoming arms of the army of mediators ready to take their place.  Yeah, that worked really well.  Hands up, Mr Grayling, didn’t you foresee that all the punters would run off to the courts as litigants in person putting a strain upon the court services whose budgets had already been slashed?

Better news: Family Dispute Resolution Week

Well, I like mediation anyway: always happy to get my clients off to see a mediator.  But mediation is not the only gig in town. You should check out collaborative law and family arbitration on the Resolution website.  How can you find out more?  Resolution, the national organisation of family lawyers is promoting the second …

Family Dispute Resolution Week

from the 25th to the 29th November 2013

 

Did you get that?   This means Resolution members throughout the country will be hosting events and trying to gain publicity for the alternatives to the court process.  In the main this means promoting the benefits of Mediation, the collaborative law process and Arbitration.  You may hear features on the radio, see articles in the local press or even bump into smiling faces at your local court handing out flyers and lending a sympathetic ear.

My bag is collaborative law where the parties sign an agreement not to go to court and the lawyers work with each other (instead of against each other) in the interest of the whole family.  Collaborative lawyers form local groups to share experience and improve practice.  I belong to two pods in the Brighton area: Sussex Family Solutions and Brightpod.  We will be promoting the benefits of family dispute resolution to the wider public.  Twitter users should be able to search for local developments using #keepitoutofcourt closer to the time.  And why not follow @ResFamilyLaw why you’re at it

Divorce Finance Toolkit

Mr Grayling – our man at the Ministry

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you can still get legal aid for mediation

You can still get legal aid for mediation

 

I reminded my readers not so long back that you can still get legal aid for mediation in family law cases.  Legal aid in family law has been cut to the bone.

The government took a big axe to civil legal aid in April this year so you might think they would at least provide some publicity for those areas of legal aid still left, battered and bruised though they may be.  Well, I’m sure the Ministry of Justice is doing a grand job.  So grand it has completely passed me by (and I am the sort of person looking out for these crumbs of comfort from the caring sharing coalition government.

Fortunate then that I came across the truly grand poster prepared by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG).  My interest is in legal aid in family law and the poster covers that. But fair do’s to the CPAG for listing every last circumstance in which civil legal aid might still be available.  Good on yer.

 

Click on the link below to see the poster.

 

LAPG Legal Aid poster

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you can still get legal aid for mediation

The government has been pushing mediation as the cure-all answer to its decision to end 60 years of legal aid for most family law work.  Everyone can mediate; who needs family lawyers, seemed to be the rationale.  Get rid of expensive legal aid, put lots of  money grabbing family lawyers out of work and mediation will deliver peace, love and understanding.

Right…

Well, the perfect storm in the world of legal services has continued unabated.  Locally, I am aware of dozens of family law solicitors and legal executives who have lost their jobs as a direct result of the withdrawal of legal aid.  I hear that close to 1,000 high street solicitors firms have closed over the last year alone.  In this respect, the government has succeeded: better still, there are no votes lost in casting lawyers onto the scrapheap.

So, with everything going to plan and all those annoying lawyers out of the picture, the mediation take-up will have rocketed, right?  Completely off the chart, right?  Right…?

Oh dear.  Ministry of Justice figures, as reported in The Guardian and other papers, show that the number of couples accessing mediation to sort out their family law problems has dropped by 47% since April – precisely the time when the legal aid cuts were introduced.  That’s nearly a 50% drop-off in 6 months.  How embarrassing for Mr Grayling, the big cheese at the Ministry of Justice.  This is the sort of policy car-crash that should have a resignation letter winging its way to the Prime Minister:

Dear Dave,

I just want to say how proud I am to have served in your cabinet.  We are responsible for some wonderful achievements and I am sure that history will judge us kindly.  However, it seems that I have made a bit of a hash with the meditation mediation wotsit.  In all fairness, I was only doing what you and George told me to do.  You said it would be all right to get rid of legal aid for family work.  Get rid of the lawyers and pack everyone off to mediation.  Bing, bang bosh, all sorted.  That’s what we told all the nay-sayers.

Well, the silly sods haven’t been going to mediation, have they?  They’ve been clogging up the bloody courts as litigants in person.  Then, some trouble maker only went and put in a freedom of information request.  (For God’s sake, can’t Theresa kick these requests into touch when she kills off the Human Rights Act?)  Anyway,  the ministry suits had to admit that mediation has dropped by half in less than a year.  I know, I know, I was blushing like a nun in a knocking shop.

Funny thing is, it turns out that it was the lawyers we have just kicked out who were making the referrals to mediation in the first place!  Who knew…?   Well, the Law Society and Bar Council did warn us that the sky would fall in but they would say that wouldn’t they?  How was I supposed to know this would happen?  I mean, I’m not a lawyer am I?  In fact, I’m the first non-lawyer in charge of lawyer-type things for nearly 400 years, which I have to say, was a master stroke of yours.  Bloody genius.

To be absolutely straight with you, I’ve never really got my melon around this Rule of Law thing.  Apparently, it’s like, really, really important.  All those lawyers, bigwigs and busybodies keep saying me and Theresa are taking the piss.  We show ‘scant regard’, or ‘contempt’ for constitutional checks and balances.  I don’t even understand what they’re getting their undercrackers in a twist about.  Why can’t they use simple language I’d understand?

So, I’ll be off then.  Spend some time with the family and all that.  Give it 6 months to blow over and then give me a shout.  Quite fancy Health.  Just sayin’…  See you at the next country sup.

Back in the real world, I just want to end by reminding any visitors to this blog that family mediation is still available on Legal Aid for those people adjudged financially eligible.  Good luck.

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Married couples tax break

Do not adjust your radio: back to the future

I am still digesting the news that David Cameron has proposed a married couples tax break which has been spun to the press as being worth £1,000. I really thought I had tuned my radio into an announcement transmitted in the late 1950’s which had, mysteriously, taken all this time to reach my DAB radio.  It is a tax allowance, so the net effect, provided both spouses are not higher rate tax payers, will be a saving to the couple of £200 a year.  The papers and news sites were full of it over the weekend:  see The Independent.

I have found myself slowly stewing with anger as the proposal has sunk in.  Why?

Firstly, I have to acknowledge that the proposed tax allowance will be available to gay couples provided they are in a registered civil partnership.  I give credit to the Prime Minister for having previously nailed his colours to the mast of gay marriage and risking the alienation of large swathes of his own party.   So what’s my beef about Dave’s long-promised plans to favour the status of marriage in the tax system?

Here’s what’s rubbing me up the wrong way about the married couples tax break:

  • The message is divisive.  What the proposal says to cohabiting couples is that they are not as important as married couples.  Co-habitees are second class citizens.  I happen to be married.  Does that make me better than the co-habiting person standing next to me in the supermarket check out queue?  Does it mean that I am a better partner to my spouse?  Or a more loving, and attentive, father to my children?  Does it make me a more rounded, more valuable citizen, better able to make an outstanding contribution to the economy, my community and the general well-being of the nation?  The answer, patently obvious to anyone investing more than 3 seconds to the proposition, is a resounding ‘No’.
  • It has ruined the warm glow I had from the announcement by the Lib Dems that every child in England between the reception year and year two would get free school meals.  I was heartened at the time by the Lib Dems’ announcement.  In retrospect, it appears the price of the Lib Dems’ free school meals plan is the free hand given to the Tories to push the married couples’ tax break. (The Lib Dems do not support the tax break but have agreed to abstain in any  Parliamentary vote).
  • It is irrational in the sense that I don’t see it fixing whatever it is the government thinks is wrong with society.  I hear that Mr Cameron is a fan of Nudge theory: that desired changes in behaviour can be achieved by indirect messages rather than beating people over the head with a stick.  The married couples tax break (which will cost £700m a year in lost tax revenue) but is only worth up to £200 a year for a married couple does not seem to me likely to have all those morally lax co-habitees rushing to tie the knot.
  • It is discriminatory.  The 2.9 million people who cohabit in the UK (according to the Office for National Statistics in November 2012) will not feel nudged by this tax discrimination: more likely it will feel like a poke in the eye such is the undiluted message of discrimination that the proposal carries.
  • It punishes children, or at least, is reckless as to the impact upon them.  Yes, I really mean that.  I have railed before about the level of child poverty in this developed society of ours.  Why should the children of married partners get the indirect benefit of this tax break but not the children of co-habitees?  The HM Treasury homepage trumpets its commitment to equality and diversity:

“When making policy, our officials look at the impact a policy might have on protected groups and then consider options to avoid any negative impact on that group.  Ministers are advised of the impact a decision has on protected groups, and this is taken into account when a policy decision is made.”

  • Well, I can’t think of a cohort more worthy of protection than the kids who are on the wrong side of the poverty gap so why should their situation worsen or slightly improve by dint of something they have no control over: their parents’ decision to marry or cohabit?
  • If you are a widow or widower.  Tough.  You miss out.  The married couples tax break is not for you any longer.
  • If you are now divorced, well, you have fallen from your state of married grace. So what if you still have the kids of the marriage to look after?  Hard cheese.  No tax break for you.

What a tawdry, tweedy little policy.  How shabby it looks in the light cast on it by the free school meals announcement.  I suppose co-habitees should at least be grateful that their kids will not be discriminated against at the school dinner table.

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