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One limitation of being a lawyer is that you can become so engrossed looking at the minutiae of legislation that you forget the policy and purpose of it all. In the past few months, I have spent a lot of time looking at how the Maintenance Regulation 4/2009 and 2007 Hague Convention for child support and maintenance have been implemented in domestic and international law, but in doing so seem to have lost touch with the enormous effort made by various countries negotiating the agreements and facilitating cross-border cooperation and procedure. This commitment was certainly apparent from the Heidelberg conference held 4 - 8 March where the German Institute for Youth Human Services and Family Law (DIJuF) invited participants from around the world to engage in discussion to increase their knowledge of child support, family maintenance law, proceedings and enforcement and to develop models for good practice. The conference was the brain child of Dr Thomas Meysen; Professional Director of DIJuF and the enthusiastic, creative, awe-inspiring doppelgänger of James Pirrie of Family Law of FLIP.
In terms of support, the main sponsors of Heidelberg conference were Aberdeen university, Universitat Heidelberg as well as big players such as the Hague, National Child Support Enforcement Association (NCSEA), Institut de Droit Compare (IDCEL) who together provided a formidable forum and ensured a continual supply of plenary sessions, workshops and cake. The sessions included presentations of qualitative and quantitative research with a particular emphasis on comparative law so implementation of the new regimes was looked at from all angles; both academic and practical. Dr Paul Beaumont and Lara Walker from Aberdeen University gave a talk on empirical research in relation to the first experiences from the Maintenance Regulation which revealed a high number of applications being made to the UK under the Article 56 procedure. This was supported anecdotally by participants who were eager to meet the delegates from REMO to discuss process and the opportunity to do so was perhaps the most helpful aspect of the conference, as case-workers from Central Authorities could meet and build on the network they have been forming since implementation.
It was also interesting to see how progressive countries were becoming in terms of changing approaches to shared care, exchange relationships, mediation and welfare. Australia in particular has funded many projects that have taken a closer look at the relationships between parents and have aimed to reduce conflict and ensure a gender neutral system so parents have less strain in parenting apart. For example, they train case-workers to consider both parents to be "customers" which in contrast to our own Child Maintenance Service that considers maintenance to be a debt "owed" by one parent to the other which leads to a more hostile approach in terms of enforcement! The Czech Republic also had a well-funded Central Authority with 15 lawyers, 3 psychologists and a number of administrative staff. Taking an efficient but careful approach in terms of administration and welfare has allowed many countries to achieve a much more successful child support regime than in the UK and I wonder how these lessons could be learned by our own policy-makers.
Should the opportunity arise to attend a similar conference then I could not recommend it enough. A few of the participants will also be attending the Centre for Family Law and Practice 2nd International Family Law and Practice Conference 2013 'Parentage, Equality and Gender' held in London from 3 - 5 July 2013 which looks just as promising. I will be going and will definitely be wearing my Heidelberg University t-shirt!
Melanie Barnes is a family law solicitor for Penningtons Solicitors LLP. Her experience includes complex ancillary relief, civil claims on behalf of unmarried couples, child maintenance claims, divorce with an international element and cross border cases involving abduction.
The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.
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