Contact and Coronavirus

What do you do about contact and Coronavirus?

The outbreak of Coronavirus across the UK is going to cause problems for contact. I’ve got no doubt about it. All the signs are there. People are changing their plans, panic buying and feeling they don’t have enough information to make an informed decision about day to day stuff.

If you’re a separated parent – and chances are you are if you’re reading this – you’ve got stuff like court orders for your children to deal with, limited communication with your ex partner and a potentially volatile situation that could get worse.

Contact and Coronavirus – how do you balance these?

This is the wrong question. The correct one is `What is in the best interests of the children’. And understanding that this in the eye of the beholder – or in the eye of the court if you’re involved in family law proceedings – means that a disagreement with your ex about how you and your children coming down with can lead to….trouble.

But back to the best interests of the child. At the moment current government advice is basically to wash your hands and do what you can to avoid getting infected. Your child travelling back and forth between you and your ex partner means that if the infection continues to spread you’ll pass it to each other. This in itself should be a good reason to ensure communication between your ex partner is clear, open and honest.

Working together in the best interests of your child and stopping the epidemic is a good thing, right kids?

If you or our child becomes infected

The moment you or your child becomes infected your child should stay where they are – regardless of the contact pattern, the order or anything else. Self-isolation is a thing – and if one person in your household has it, there is an increased risk that others in your home will do too. Follow government advice and call 111 or speak to your doctor (phone…don’t visit).

And let your ex partner know.

Court orders are to be followed. But the court is clear – sometime things…happen. This is one of them. Contact your ex. Explain the situation. Suggest that your child stay where they are until it is clear whether Coronvirus infection has been confirmed or not.

Suggest your child stay where they are regardless of the court order. Regardless of who is the primary carer. Regardless of plans. Regardless of anything else.

Contact and CoronavirusA difficult ex – how do you deal with contact and Coronvirus?

But what to do if the ex insists the order is followed? That’s the tricky one. From a medical, ethical and legal perspective? With my legal head on? Document what is happening – when people have got sick, etc. What advice you’re given. And worry about the consequences afterwards.

If I seem vague, or if the advice seems a bit `how long is a piece of string’ that’s because this is often the nature of the court…and the fact we’re in an unprecedented situation means things are up for debate (which hopefully won’t be in court).

tl:DR

Follow government advice. Act in the best interests of the child. Don’t use this as an excuse to extend or prevent contact. Communicate with your ex.

It’s as simple as this. And no…there are no guarantees here.

How does the family court know its making the right decisions?

Data in the family court - unmined gold?Decisions in the family court?

The CAFCASS officer looked at me and  said `If I don’t see someone again I assume everything is fine’.

I’d just asked her how she knew her recommendations were in the best interests of the child.

When I responded `People give up too don’t they? How can you tell the difference?’ she didn’t answer.

Best interests of the child

What’s the definition of the above?

It’s a good and fair question to ask if you’re in the family court. What’s in the best interests of the child?

Uh uh uh….no clues.

My cynical and jaded definition of this is `Whatever you can convince the court that is’. Which means that if you ask that judge he or she may differ from the next one. It’s why you can be left feeling you’ve got a strong case one hearing and an awful one the next. It’s why you can go to one hearing and get a legal drubbing when you’ve got a strong case or feel it’s going your way when it’s perhaps more touch and go.

Despite the many jokes about legal professionals (`How can you tell when a lawyer is lying? His lips are moving’) they are only human. They have their own personal beliefs, biases, stories and their mood will be coloured by the car that cut them up on the way to work, the cat crapping on the carpet again and that nasty cold they’ve got. Despite the systems in place…they’re as fallible as you or me.

Gold - the data the family court could use would be invaluableBig decisions, little analysis

So how do legal professionals know they’re making a decision that is for the best?

In another life I worked as a performance analyst, business analyst and requirements engineer for big corporations that wanted to guarantee – as much as possible they’d make money, save money, not get sued, etc.

 

When I moved into family law I took a keen interest in stuff like the forms the courts used (badly designed, redundant questions), processes (antiquated – lots of time lost and work wasted because of poor design) and this – a  lack of analysis of results.

How can the court work out if they’re doing any good if they don’t collect the data much less analyse what happens as a result of their decisions?

How does it know if the order it makes works a year, 5 years, 10 years down the line? Are they safe? Aren’t dragged in front of CAFCASS officers, social workers, psychologists or anyone else repeatedly? If your order keeps getting broken? In short – they don’t.

Much.

I’ve a feeling the Ministry of Justice keep any of this sort of thing to themselves and if personal experience is anything to go by…I don’t blame them. I know they do some…but I’ve a feeling it isn’t enough.

But just imagine. The court knowing that if it orders X’ there is a 59% change of success, if it doesn’t order `Y’ 74% of kid will do `Z’. Now I get it…there are a lot of factors. And every course is different. But believe me…there are ways – if enough data is collected that patterns can be pieced together.

Imagine…an evidence based process to improve things.

How does this help you?

Well…it doesn’t. Much. But it teaches you a big fact here. If you go away, the court marks it as a success. Because if you weren’t happy with the outcome you’d be back in court wouldn’t you?

So if you’re tempted to walk away for any reason other than the best interests of your children…no one will notice, care and you may well be added to the `proof’ that the system works fine.

Help! They’re ignoring my children’s wishes!

`I will support contact if my children want it’

We hear this a lot. After all parents need to listen to their children – because they’re people and have wishes and feelings like all of us don’t they?

But…

  • `I will support my children only eating chocolate if they want to do that’.
  • `I will support my children not going to school if they choose that’.
  • `I will support my children not going to bed if they choose to stay up all night’.

And when this is said the usual response is That is totally different and a ridiculous comparison’ or `If my children didn’t want to go to school I would find out why rather than just send them’.

Yet not many people would defend their children living off sugar, not getting an education or playing at 3am on a school night…but they would when it comes to not spending time with the closest relative they have.

Wishes and feelings

Children are subject to the Children Act. Which means the law applies to them. And of course…it applies to their parents too. It’s worth pointing out that it’s been acknowledged in court this means both parents and children sometimes have to do stuff they don’t want to do. Contact with a separated parent for example.

The main concern of the court is The best interests of the child’ and not `What the child wants’.

The Children Act applies to anyone under the age of 16 (in most cases – sometimes it’s 18). So strictly speaking if you want to know at what age a child can make their mind up about contact or anything else…that’s the answer.

Complications, complications

As a child gets older and their ascertainable wishes and feelings get clearer/stronger what they want also gets more significant. But until they’re 16 what they want remains just one of the 7 factors taken into consideration by the court when it makes an order – aka `The Welfare Checklist’. A progressively more important one…but still one of 7.

Or another way of looking at it…the older they get, the more likely what they want is liable to be able to `tip the balance’ when it comes to a court making a decision.

Magic number

But there is no magic age when you can say that what a child wants will make or break any decision. It’s theoretically possible that 15 1/2 year old will be subject to an order they’ve said they don’t want. Or for the 6 year old’s wishes to swing it.

Of course – the court has a wide ambit of discretion. You may well not agree with the court about how much weight your child’s wishes and feelings should carry when it comes to sorting things out.

So if you’re going into court and you’re relying purely on what your child is saying…or you think your child is saying you’re ignoring 6 other factors that the court will look at when it comes to making a decision. It doesn’t matter if a school or other agency plucks an age out of the air says it will listen at a certain age – it doesn’t trump the Children Act. This includes Gillick Competency by the way – it’s not relevant here.

Checking Facebook and other things more important than your child contact case

Child contact or Facebook?Finding that lost dog in Arizona or contact with your children?

Contact with your children is the most important thing in the world to you. Not seeing them has caused you to fall into depression. Put you into debt. Ruined friends and relationships. Generally turned your world upside down.

And yet when it comes to doing something about it you do stuff that isn’t going to help. This includes (but isn’t limited to):

  • Going on holiday during a crucial part of your case.
  • Deciding to print your documents the morning of the hearing.
  • Not asking the boss for some time off to do stuff that needs doing because he may say no.
  • Turning up late.
  • Not looking after crucial documents .

Rabbit in the headlights?

Every action has a reason behind it. When people do this sort of thing it’s usually because they don’t want to go to the damn hearing or deal with the horrible paperwork. We don’t blame them for that. It’s a normal (and sane!) reaction when faced with something unpleasant. (It’s different for us. It’s our job and we stay neutral when you’re feeling under pressure).

But how would it be if dealing with these horrible jobs made you gain the feeling that you’ve seized control of the situation? That you’ve ticked something else off the list of things that need to happen to achieve your goals.

And this is something you can do that will help your situation with zero legal knowledge, help from people like us or anything like that. It’s free.

Things to do instead of working on your case?Catch-22

The above is easy to say but can be more challenging to do. But it is possible. Because it’s a mindset thing. And you’re in charge of your mind. Whether it is deciding to give the ex’s solicitor both barrels, telling the judge like it is or choosing to be happy when others wouldn’t be – it’s down to you.

The longer we’ve assisted people the more we’ve realised the more responsibility you take for yourself, the more power you have.

This post comes off the back of a conversation with a colleague who said how frustrated when people seemingly do things to damage their own situations. If the above applies to you…what can you do to make sure you’re making it that little bit easier?

Court cases and why it’s ALL your fault!

Not for those of a nervous disposition

We’re not going to apologise for saying stuff that you don’t want to hear. #sorrynotsorry

We’re going to be told we don’t understand how hard it is. How we’re kicking people when they’re down. Comments about how we’re meant to be helping people and not giving them a hard time. If we’re really lucky we may get a few nasty messages (it happens).

But what do you really want?

Tea and biscuits?

Tea and biscuits?

Someone who agrees with you, tells how awfully you’ve been treated and how biased the court system is…and then goes on to make an amazing cup of tea while offering you selection of nice biscuits?

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for somewhere to share experiences – consoled by the fact that others know how it feels and to swap war stories.

But there is more to it than that. Much more.

 

Are we just kicking you while you’re down?

You know that saying about a true friend being the one who tells you what you need to hear rather than what you want to hear…? Someone who is ready to have that hard conversation with you because they value you enough as a person to want you to do well?

There are thousands of people who will tell you what you want to hear and a multitude of Facebook groups jam packed with people who write long post over long periods about how their situation never changes.

If we’re honest it’s why you won’t find us posting in any of the many Facebook groups that exist to support parents and others in the family courts. It’s easy to be drowned out by people posting convenient platitudes rather than the inconvenient truths you’ll hear from us.

We want to help people…who are clear and serious about achieving goals that can be achieved with the court system. We’ve got a vested interest in doing our utmost to those we help get the best result possible.

All your fault

And here we are at the final bit of this post. The Jerry Springer – style soundbite past the clickbaity headline is this:

The outcome in a court case is influenced greatly by you. For good or bad. Your behaviour and actions have more impact than you’d think if you’re a big fan of those Facebook groups dominated by that man or woman who tells you how awful it is, how they were skinned alive in their court hearing but forget to mention how they told the judge or a barrister he/she was a c**t in the final hearing – it happens – we’ve seen this.

The man or woman who was focused, considered and did what was needed…they’re not posting in that group. They’ve moved on and working on building a better life and not telling everyone about how you may as well give up.

And your reaction to this post will be telling too. Are you now thinking `Maybe I could do some things better?‘ or are you already formulating the response about why it is someone else’s fault?

Which is it to be?

How to lose friends and alienate people (in court)

Fallout Shelter sign

Mutually assured destruction – when destroying the other side is more important than your own survival

We often tell people that family law is more of an art than a science. There are few guarantees. Lots of variables. And a hefty dose of catching the right judge at the right time.

But there are a few sure fire ways to help or hinder your case.

Today. An object lesson in what to do if you really want to shoot yourself in the foot when you make an application.

Number one: Give up

The absolute best way, guaranteed to achieve nothing. Say the courts are biased, that they won’t enforce their own orders, listen to what your mates say and decide to save yourself the hassle. It doesn’t matter if these are all true.

But if you only do one thing to fail…this is it.

Number two: Talk about your case on social media

It’s a winner! You’ll give your ex ammunition to use against you (and his/her solicitor too), possibly give them a heads up against what your situation is and allow them to spend the entire hearing discussing this rather than stuff like contact. It’ll irritate the court too. It may even cause you to face contempt of court charges.

…but you at least you can say you had your say.

Number three: Label your ex as a narcissist or a parental alienator

You may be in court to discuss contact and not your ex partner’s mental state. You may not be a qualified psychologist, nor appointed by the court or an impartial figure. But you can use the time to pin a label on your ex.

Bonus points for taking in news clippings to back up your views but the court won’t be interested in them.

Number four: Fighting fire with fire/telling the court like it is

You’ve been labelled as angry, aggressive and contrary – and to show the court this isn’t the case you’re going to fight everyone. Every step of the way. You’re going to counter allegation with allegation. Do things `on principle’. Do stuff to see how your ex partner likes it. Tell the court what you think of it.

You won’t get contact or time with your children…but at least you didn’t bow down to anyone.

The Jerry Springer-style wrap up

The family law courts are full of angry and upset people.  It’s quite possible that you’re one of them and reading this has made you angry and upset.

But the courts are set up to deal with angry and upset people…it’s something they’re really good at doing. As always – it’s all about focus. What are you in court for in the first place?

Think carefully before you act.

Paperwork madness: What do I do about bundles and statements?

Represent myself? Won't there be too much paperwork?Court cases and mountains of paperwork…

…but is it all really necessary? Will it actually make any difference to your case?

It’s a great question. It’s possible that you can turn up at your next hearing with nothing at all, that the court will listen to you, take into account that you’re a litigant-in-person who doesn’t understand the bedroom reading that is Practice Direction 27A and make an order that you feel is fair and in the best interests of your child.

In the same way it’s likely that on the way to the hearing you won’t need the restraint of your seat belt because you’re not going to drive into the back of the car in front of you. We’re guessing that despite this you usually buckle up when you go for drive though.

Clunk click every trip.

Overkill? You decide.

It’s all about the judgement isn’t it? It’s a risk you decide is or isn’t acceptable. Some things are worth punting – some things aren’t.

Court paperwork can be like a seatbeltWhen you’re in the family courts it’s your how much money you’ll be left with when the dust settles from the divorce or separation. Or when your children will be able to see you. You know how important it is to you. When you ask us, we’ll tell you if we think it is worth putting together than trial bundle. That statement. Anything else.

We can be a cautious bunch here at Family Law Towers. We’re great at doing things on the fly. Which is useful when it comes to helping you in negotiations. When you’ve got the police knocking at your door. When you’ve been pole-axed by a piece of information at precisely the wrong moment.

But when that sort of stuff isn’t happening we like to prepare, organise and decide what an acceptable risk is. The decision is yours however and we’ll support you in whatever way you choose…

Divorce, money and children – three strands in one.

Divorce? It’s easy to forget: Not everyone has the same area of expertise as you and doesn’t take for granted the same stuff.

We’re called `Family Law Assistance’. Because unsurprisingly enough…we assist people with Family Law. It’s something we deal with on a daily basis.

Divorce consists of the divorce itself, financial arrangements and can involve children.

But despite the bulk of our work concerning children, arrangements concerning them is just one of the three different strands (if you’re married) that need dealing with.

These three strands are:

  1. The divorce itself.
  2. Financial arrangements.
  3. Child arrangements.

How these are dealt with depend on your own particular situation. Things like…do you agree on them? Are you amicable? What the circumstances of your situation? What is the situation with assets? Liabilities? At least two of them can apply to unmarried couples too (for our more legally minded friends we’re talking about TOLATA and Schedule 1 Applications).

Timing is crucial too…so it’s often a case of judgement and not simply knowledge of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 or what forms to fill in and how.

The three strands of divorce: Spot the odd one out

OK, OK. Bit of a trick headline there.

But the court really wants you to agree on things without it having to get involved as much as possible. They’re overstretched, under budgeted and besides…you’re much more likely to stick to an order if you are actually happy with it – which is where agreement comes in.

But for the sake of drawing a line on a marriage there does need to be a certain amount of paperwork.

So there does need to be a piece of paper that says you’re actually divorced.

And there needs to be something that says you’re not the financial liability or beneficiary of your (now ex) spouse’s money woes or otherwise.

Children though…agree the arrangement between yourselves and it’s not the business of anyone else’s. You can (and should!) work with your ex partner to raise your children as best as you can despite going your separate ways.

You don’t need an order for your children. You don’t need use to help you with that if you agree with your ex and you don’t need a solicitor.

Divorce: The wrap up

The take home from this post is straightforward:

  1. When most people talk about `divorce’ the usually mean the whole lot – divorce itself, money and children.
  2. Unmarried people can (but don’t have to) deal with money and children.
  3. Agreeing stuff is better, faster and cheaper than involving us or a solicitor.
  4. It is possible.

As always…keep things amicable where ever possible!

5 things we’re always asked

McKenzie Friends: What we’re always asked.

We get asked all sorts of questions. Some of them are complicated, some are simple – it kind of goes with the territory of what we do on a day to day basis.

But we hear quite a few myths about McKenzie Friends – many of which are untrue. They confuse people so without further ado here’s a run down on the biggies.

Can you represent me?

No. Only a solicitor or a barrister can do that. Its’ worth thinking for a moment what being `represented’ actually mean in a court context. Here it means someone who can speak for you in court. Respond to other people on your behalf – write to your ex and/or their solicitor. Sign documents. Solicitors and barristers are officers of the court.

As that link says:

Although solicitors must fearlessly advance their clients’ cases, they are not “hired guns” whose only duty is to their client. They also owe duties to the courts, third parties and to the public interest.

So we can’t. We can offer you advice, help with paperwork, that sort of thing – but we cannot represent you. But over the decade we’ve assist people we’ve come up with a pretty good way of both following the rules about what we can do and providing you with the help you need!

Are you solicitors?

See above. Solicitors are officers of the court (see above). They’re legally qualified.

McKenzie Friends don’t have to be qualified either but some are (Michaela Wade is a CILEX-qualified paralegal). Others have a wide range of skills and experience.

Can you give me legal advice?

Yes! 4.) iv of Practice Guidance: McKenzie Friends (Civil and Family Courts) says a McKenzie Friend can `quietly give advice on any aspect of the conduct of the case’.

Our advice is based on our legal knowledge (as I say above our team includes qualified individuals) and experience of a large number of wide-varying cases over the years. We’ll tell you what we think the best action to progress the situation is – and you are free to follow or disregard it at any point. We’ll tell you what the court has the power to do and not to do, what the likely response of the court and others involved in the case will be and how to handle changing situations.

It’s really as simple as that.

Can you come to court with me?

Yes! We’re really not sure why people seem to think we can’t. We can! Speak to many legal professionals and they’ll be under the impression that is all we do – they think we’ll turn up on the day, sit with you and go away when the hearing ends (Pro-tip: We do a lot more than that!)

The only time we can’t be with you is during CAFCASS conciliation appointments (mediation before a hearing) – but neither can your solicitor be if you have one instead of us assisting you.

So we can be with you at all points – including when it comes to going into the court room to speak to the judge or magistrates.

Can I change the judge/CAFCASS officer/social worker?

Maybe. But seriously…99.99% of the time it isn’t going to work and it isn’t going to help trying. It’s understandable especially if things aren’t going the way you’d like. The processes to achieve this are there – but for obvious reasons they tend to be a lot harder than actually working with the system to get the desired result.

It’s important to look at the big picture too. Judges, CAFCASS officers, social workers – they often move on over the life span of a case so it’s quite possible that whoever you aren’t particularly enamoured won’t be involved before long in any case.

This last one is a controversial – I know. But it’s a fact. Court cases are hard. Fighting the people involved in the system is even harder and you should conserve your energy on your primary goal.

Wrap up

If you’re not clear on what your McKenzie Friend can do – ask. Read. Practice Guidance on McKenzie Friends is the definitive guide to what we can and can’t do. Anything else you’re reading is just rumour!

Ask Us Anything! (25th May 2018)

In the first of a series of Facebook Lives we’re hear to answer any questions you may have about Family Law, contract law, CMS and employment tribunals.

We also answered questions emailed to us at steven@familylawassistance.co.uk.

We’ll be running another one in August so watch our Facebook Page for announcements!