Consultation On Marriages By Non-Religious Belief Organisations Finally Unravels The Knot

Or at least it’s trying to.

The consultation, which sought views on whether non religious belief organisations like humanists should be allowed to conduct marriage ceremonies, has now closed, and the report has been published today.

Not surprisingly, the majority of people who contributed to the consultation saw no reason why such organisations shouldn’t be able to conduct such ceremonies (and to do so in unrestricted locations, including outdoors), but the consultation also reveals a well known truth: that our marriage laws are messy and piecemeal changes create even more, unnecessary, complexity.

This may be good news for the legal eagles who will be tasked with picking through the many legislative threads now tangled together, from outdated laws still knotting things up, to newer, progressive laws allowing more people to marry in different ways and adding layers of law which do not tie up with the layers underneath it. The trouble is, all these options have been developed over time and so they create a patchwork quilt of confusing principles and policy which make for potentially awkward equality issues. We have always thought that marriage law should be scrapped and re-drafted. And we still think so.

One law for all.

MOJ

 

 

A Personal Appeal From Researching Reform This Christmas

Those of you who know our blog will know that we are mad about children here at Researching Reform, and nothing speaks to us like the plight of vulnerable children, wherever they might be.

So, when we received an email from our favourite children’s charity Kids Company asking for any help we could offer to support their Christmas initiative, we hoped we could enlist our army of superheroes, that’s you, to get involved. Their project this Christmas runs something like this:

Kids Company are having a Christmas party for 4,000 destitute children. These children often dread Christmas, and some attempt suicide at this time of year. They feel alone and unseen, and are in desperate need of a hot meal, and hugs. Lots and lots of them. (That’s hugs and kids)!

Many of these children have been sexually, physically or emotionally abused, and many do not have loving families to share Christmas with, or presents to open. Kids Company want to give these children a wonderful Christmas, filled with good food, gifts and we hope lots of love and affection.

Kids Company is also a sanctuary for neglected children at this time of the year and need help to raise funds not just for their Christmas party but for emergency child protection, mental health and food cover. As well as the 4,000 children they will be welcoming to their office, they will need to send food out to another 12,000. Yes, that’s an extra 12,000 little bodies that need to be fed and nourished.

Of course this is a tough time of year to give to every plea for help, but if you’ve found our site useful to you in some way throughout the year, or we’ve assisted you in some way, or perhaps you’ve just found our posts thought-provoking and feel they’re for the greater good, all we ask is that you might consider giving a little something to Kids Company, just as a nod to making the world a better place and to giving our poorest children something to look forward to this Christmas.

If you feel you can, just click on this link to make your way over to their Crowdfunder Page – just a fiver can make all the difference, and there are even nifty prizes to be won if you donate!

The money you raise will not only help children and young people but it will also go to supporting vulnerable adults too, making this endeavour a truly wonderful one.

Please give if you can. It would mean the world to us, and to the children your donation will support.

Thank You xxxxxxxxxxxxx

The Voice Of The Child Must Be Heard in Care, Not Just In Our Courts

Whatever The Timpsons and Loughtons of this world have to say about progress for children in care, the reality is that not much has changed since light was first shed onto the dire conditions most children experiencing social care face, almost a decade ago now.

Jackie Long is social affairs editor over at Channel 4, and her recent blog on outcomes for children in care is a stark reminder that whilst adults seem to be talking about change, virtually nothing is happening on the ground.  And no one is actually listening to our children.

Her post highlights several things ministers tend to forget whilst they’re busy patting themselves on the back for jobs seemingly well done. It costs more to see a child through the care system, than it does to send a child to Eton. Despite this, whilst children at Eton get the Rolls Royce of education and pastoral care, children in care most often face the prospect of illiteracy and physical, and emotional abuse. Here are some stats from Jackie’s piece:

  • Almost one third of children in care leave school with no GCSEs at all.
  • Only 6 per cent of care leavers go onto university – as opposed to 38 per cent of all young people.
  • Almost 40 per cent of prisoners under 21 had been in care while they were growing up.
  • children in care have a higher chance of developing mental health problems or ending up homeless.

All this we know, but we tend to forget amidst the clarion calls for reform and the loud trumpeting of more children taken into care, taken from ‘abhorrent monster parents’ to be placed in the arms of loving foster carers and residential staff.

But that’s bollocks, and we know it.

We can have as many voice of the child conferences and seminars as we like, but until we get staff on the ground to understand what it means to listen to children and to show them love and affection at the same time, these children will continue to go unseen and unheard.

Time and again we hear social workers saying they can’t show love and affection to children because it might cause emotional trauma once they’re moved on, but that is to suggest that children’s emotional development can be frozen in time once they land in care and reignited at a later date once they are ‘safely housed’ with foster carers or adoptive parents. The merits of that sentiment about safety too are questionable as children continue to be bounced around from carer to carer, let down by people who are either unable to cope with vulnerable children or are simply looking for a quick way to make cash (the debate raging around ‘salaries’ for foster carers is a big issue as well).

And all these things, over a period of time, contribute to a feeling of powerlessness and a fading voice, which with time, becomes so quiet, no one even notices it anymore.

You can catch Jackie on Twitter, for more on social affairs.

Many thanks to Maggie Tuttle for alerting us to Jackie’s blog post.

 

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Jackie Long, Channel 4

 

 

Rise – A Magazine By and For Parents Affected By The Child Welfare System

We came across Rise this evening, and we think it’s nothing short of brilliant, and so had to share it. In fact, we think the UK needs its own version of Rise, right now.

So, what is it? As the post title suggests, it’s a magazine written by parents who have experienced the family justice system in the US, and most often that means parents who have at some point, lost their children to the care system.

Why is it so brilliant? The magazine aims to tackle negative stereotypes of parents who lose their children to the care system, effectively giving them a voice and highlighting the fact that these parents are more often than not loving mothers and fathers who have struggled with their own personal demons, and lost the fight to free themselves from them.

It is also designed to help family practitioners better understand the issues involved in child welfare through advocacy and training as well as support groups. The initiative also trains parents to write about their own experiences in order to help other parents going through the welfare system.

What’s in the magazine? Mostly personal stories of parents who have been inside the child welfare system. The magazine also offers workbooks and support links. The workbooks are particularly good – from information for parents visiting their children in foster care, building relationships between parents and foster carers, to stories about reunification with children and beating substance addictions to enable reconnection with your children, this site is ground-breaking.

There is something else unusual about Rise. None of the parents mentioned appear to be using alter egos or made up names, and children also do not appear to be shielded by anonymity. This may be due to the fact that the cases discussed are now over, or it may be another factor at play entirely (this is a US site and their rules on reporting may differ from ours), but the stories we have read are thought-provoking and inspiring.

We absolutely need something like this in the UK – we hope someone out there is listening….

 

Question It!

Welcome to another week, and another question.

The Deputy Children’s Commissioner Sue Berelowitz caused outrage amongst lawyers, judges and social workers last week by claiming that opening up the family courts would lead to child suicides.

Sue’s assertion stems from the point of view that allowing media reporting of family cases where children are involved would inevitably lead to the identification of those children and that children themselves would feel terribly vulnerable knowing their cases had been made public, even if attempts had been made to conceal their identities. There is some support for this view. A recent report which asked a sample of children how they felt about media reporting of their cases indicated a strong desire to oppose such reporting amidst fears of sensationalism and breaches of privacy. 

But the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, is a strong advocate of more reporting on family cases, and his drive to open up the courts is well documented. Munby’s point of view stems from the belief that in a democratic society, family courts should be open to scrutiny and that there is therefore a public interest principle at play.

Our question this week, then, is this. Can we reconcile the imperative to protect our children in family cases with greater transparency inside our family courts?

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Deputy Children’s Commissioner Opposes Making Child Cases Fully Transparent – And We Agree

In a statement which has thrown the transparency debate off-kilter and caused more than a small uprising amongst those who are pushing for complete openness inside the family courts, Sue Berelowitz, the Deputy Children’s Commissioner, has warned that making the family courts open in the fullest sense could lead to child deaths.

And we agree.

Speaking at the The Family Justice Council’s annual debate, Miss Berelowitz explained that children may kill themselves if they fear that their names will become public knowledge in relation to their cases. Her remark stunned the audience and caused fury amongst judges, lawyers and social workers pushing for more open reporting within the family courts.

And although the Daily Mail article is filled with disparaging remarks about Sue’s track record in the child welfare sector, we think Sue has a point.

And she’s not alone. Recent research which sought the opinions of children about opening up the family courts confirms her view. Many children are mistrustful of the media and view their role as a sensationalist one, which doesn’t include seeking out fact and highlighting injustice. (You can access the NYAS report here). And many of these children are already in a state of deep anxiety as a result of very difficult personal circumstances, circumstances which many find painful and hugely embarrassing to revisit within the confines of the court room, let alone in the glare of the media spotlight.

Sue’s comment has also been taken out of context. In the past, she has been a strong advocate for openness within the family courts – as long as that openness doesn’t come at the expense of the welfare of those children involved. Speaking about the Ministry of Justice’s promise to look at media reporting in the courts previously, Sue has said:

“We [The Office of The Children’s Commissioner] have long advocated for assurances that a child’s privacy is upheld and the utmost sensitivity is demonstrated before any information from the family courts is made public. Any change to the current rules on reporting must put the best interests of the child first. We will continue to work with the Ministry of Justice to ensure these children’s lives are adequately protected.”

Of course, transparency also offers protections to those who have experienced injustice and poor quality service inside the system. Those worst hit by these difficulties are usually children, and many have been vocal about having their say in court and being put on the record. That desire to be seen and heard in court though, is not the same as having the details of their cases made public and the potential to be identified within those cases.

The key lies in getting the balance right. If we can put into place measures which both assure the anonymity of those children who wish to remain ‘unseen’ by the public at large and offer a process by which children can waive that anonymity if they want to, we will start to be able to offer something meaningful. Some may argue that this is a tall order, and that you can never have transparency without the risk of identification, but we must try.  The current guidelines on media reporting too, are measured and cautious, and a good stepping stone upon which to move forward.

As for Sue, we think she’s spot on. Let’s not open up the family courts because we want to make a point, or make public interest our priority, but because, first and foremost, we want to protect our children, both from media scrutiny and life-changing injustice.

If you’d like to read the transcript or listen to the podcast for the debate Sue spoke at, you can do so here.

Many thanks to the fabulous Tracey McMahon for alerting us to this news item, and to the gorgeous Paula Doherty for the link to the debate’s podast and transcript.

 

First Ever Fund To Help Male Victims Of Rape And Sexual Violence

It’s been long overdue, but the government has now committed itself to pledging over one million pounds to help male victims of rape and sexual violence.

In a press release published today, The Ministry of Justice announced that it would it would help to fund specialist rape support organisations across England and Wales, as part of the first ever fund to help male victims of rape and sexual violence. The fund is called The Male Rape Support Fund.

The press release tells us that:

  • 1 in 10 victims of rape or attempted rape every year are men
  • According to data from 2012-13, around 75,000 men are victims of sexual assault or attempted assault a year
  • 9,000 men are victims of rape or attempted rape each year according to 2013 figures and;
  • Police figures show fewer than 3,000 offences of male rape or sexual assault were recorded in 2013/14

12 organisations have already secured funding and the government hopes to launch a website which will be built by Survivors UK for men who have suffered rape or sexual abuse.

Do read the press release in full if you have a moment.

male-rape-support-infographic-page-0

 

Human Rights – The Foundation of Family Law

Today is Human Rights Day, celebrated the world over to mark the importance of essential freedoms that protect and promote humanity. The UK is fully signed up to the Human Rights Act 1998 (it came into force on 2 October 2000 here). Under the Act, it is unlawful for any public body to act in a way which is incompatible with the Convention, unless the wording of any other primary legislation provides no other choice, but the judiciary must take account of any decisions, judgement or opinion of the European Court of Human Rights. If it is not possible to reconcile these decisions with UK law, then the Convention overrides that law.

The theme this year is Human Rights 365, which just means that we shouldn’t view these rights as a novelty, but a basic part of our daily experience as human beings. Human Rights Day is Every Day.

And in the family courts in the UK that will resonate deeply with parents, practitioners and members of the public who have either experienced or followed the evolution, some might say devolution, of the family courts over the last decade.

That devolution has involved the gradual erosion of those basic human rights we should be protecting inside our justice system. The ever shrinking budget for legal aid is now putting children, men and women at risk of harm. We know that women who have experienced domestic violence for example, continue to be denied legal aid. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one could argue that several freedoms have been breached already as a result of the new legal aid thresholds, including Article 7 which tells us that everyone is equal before the law, and entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. Yet legal protection in the UK has become highly selective, with the vast majority of families inside the family courts now having to represent themselves, without the necessary tools or knowledge they need.

Article 10 tells us that “everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.” Inside the family courts that fairness is eroded through the use of two differing standards, civil and criminal, when trying a parent for alleged neglect or abuse. A parent can find they are tried in both criminal and civil courts for an allegation, but as both courts use different burdens of proofs and standards for evidence, the outcomes often vary. This in itself is manifestly unfair, and leaves the door wide open for further miscarriages of justice.

Policy continues to clash with law, never more so than through the adoption process. The Websters, who lost their children due to injuries being misdiagnosed, were told they could not have their children back because adoption was final. And yet, a mother whose child is abducted and found eight years later is allowed to be reunited with him. This odd double standard highlights a clear violation of the right to a family life, and impinges of course, on every child’s rights as enshrined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – a document the UK has signed up to (we signed the Convention on 19 April 1990, ratified it on 16 December 1991 and it then came into force on 15 January 1992.)

A recent development which threatens to remove the protections offered through the Convention altogether is the Court of Appeal’s decision that there is no longer a need to consider human rights in private family law cases. The argument the court put forward was that unlike public family law cases where the proceedings were brought by the State, private family law cases were brought by parents and so did not fall under the required remit. The judge took the view that human rights considerations of this nature, in family cases only applied where a public authority was involved and directly responsible for any actions which might lead to interference of a family member’s human rights. The view was that Parliament had provided a legislative mechanism for parties with parental responsibility in this area, which is human rights compliant, and that was that. But this line of thinking is ill-conceived. Even if parents do bring proceedings, they are effectively asking the State to provide a solution, and so once again that decision rests in the State’s hands. So one party has voluntarily asked the State to intervene, whilst the other has no choice. But the State is still the final arbiter in both cases.

These are some of the worrying developments within the family courts which seek to curtail or cut out completely those fundamental human rights that children and parents are entitled to. On Human Rights Day this year, we urge every one of you, parents, practitioners, children and the public, to stand up for those rights and let our government know that human rights are not flimsy philosophical ideals, they are the foundation, the bedrock, upon which family law rests.

 

 

 

Child Abuse Inquiry -Today’s Meeting Between The Panel and Survivors


As we mentioned in a recent post, last week’s meeting between survivors of child abuse and panel members detailed a further meeting for today (you can catch a more complete schedule here).

That meeting has now taken place and one of the attendees, Ian Pace, has written a good summary of that session.

The points up for discussion and the matters raised are very similar to the 5th December meeting; namely making the inquiry a statutory one, getting a Chair sorted out sooner rather than later, expanding the terms of reference and looking at support for survivors who wish to talk about their own personal experiences during the Inquiry process.

The issue of chair also raised the notion of an English judge leading the inquiry. Ian mentions some hesitancy over this by the Home Office, who cite difficulties with asking judges to be relieved of their duties. The clue in relation to the preferred judicial contender is clear, as they mention the awkwardness of relieving a Supreme Court judge for example, which may then cause problems as the Supreme Court may be left with a deeply imbalanced crew in terms of gender. Lady Hale, of course, would be the perfect choice but having a member of the British judiciary, it could be argued, would be tantamount to allowing the Executive to have control over what is supposed to be a fully independent inquiry, and this in turn could have a negative effect on the process.

In order to counteract that point perhaps and to fulfill certainly the government’s and perhaps survivors’ wishes, it looks as if a judicial Chair will be found from farther afield, in another country, so watch this space.

Do read the summary if you have time; we are sure these meetings will prove to be important in the future.

Hat tip to JG for alerting us to this item.

 

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