Penny Booth: Ups and Downs of Family Life

11 OCT 2010

Penny BoothWell, with all the talk this week of benefit cuts, service cuts and pensions, one could be forgiven for feeling somewhat depressed about the finances in the country. What is of concern to me is the cut in legal aid and the possibility of making people go to mediation. I agree that public money should not be spent unless attempts are made to help couples where marriages are in trouble (and civil partnerships? Well, how about long-term cohabitations?), but forcing people to go to mediation - how does that work, then? I would like to see couples being encouraged to use mediation (I remember something of this in the previous attempt to reform the law in the abortive divorce reforms of 1996) but the ‘devil is in the detail' on this one. I hope we think that one through before any big announcements are made.

Talking of big announcements - the announcement of the limiting of child benefit seems to have been played-out like a slow-motion train crash during the last week - which of course it would have been no matter which government was in power. As it is a coalition, of course, one can blame three parties - the two in the coalition and the coalition itself. Will it affect family law? Well, one can leave matters to ‘bed down' but already I feel confusion setting in. The loss of income in many families in what has been a main universal benefit for families with children for so long is a crossing of the Rubicon indeed.

By limiting the cut to couples where one in the married partnership is being paid £44,000 or more (no matter what the other partner is getting) is just confusing - here was me thinking ministers had a grasp of economics, too. Why not combine the couple's income if you want to be ‘fair'? In any case - what about the unmarried couples with children? What about those in a civil partnership who have children? ‘Child Benefit' - there is a clue there in the name, is there not? Children come along and they may be cared for in all sorts of families. It does not matter what kind of family for this purpose because what we should be focussing on is provision for children, not for a particular kind of partnership or a monetary level. Families do not have to have married adults heading them before they are families with children, too. I really cannot help thinking that there needed to be some consultation before this cut was announced, which might have avoided some ineptitude - after all, having made the announcement you either then have to carry it out now or indulge in a humiliating climb-down. This doesn't just look silly, it looks discriminatory, too.

One newspaper last week was talking about womb transplants to help infertile women. Some animal trials have been successful (involving complex surgery and massive amounts of anti-rejection drugs) and doctors working on this are hoping for human trials within two years. Well, can I suggest that HM Government starts looking at the HFEA 2008 now before we get caught out again by technological advances and find ourselves without legal provision to cover the new possibilities? We don't want a repeat of the 1980s and 1990s - particularly when no doubt some boffin with a brain the size of a small country and the sense the size of a pea decides that it really is a good idea to go for a male pregnancy just because they can. After all, why bother thinking about it? If you can do it, we never seem, as a species, to wonder if we should do it, and we always expect the law to provide us with an answer. This really does need a lot of thought and consultation before anything further happens.

I see that a report "How fair is Britain?" on the state of our equal society is published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission today available as we start a new week. The Telegraph's version of the report (just to be fair as I normally use another newspaper) has some interesting comments, saying that the report:

"...describes itself as the most comprehensive audit of "fairness" ever undertaken. It is by no means a damning indictment of this country's record."

We will hear and read a lot about ‘fairness' over the next few years - a political delight and a great aspiration. Let's remember that treating people the same is not necessarily the same as treating them fairly or equally, and let's be vigilant. Family law and lawyers must be able to ensure people get a fair deal, to do otherwise may bring only very transient gains for one side and damage others beyond repair.

I am delighted to see the first part of the Munro report out and we can look forward to improving the service for children for whom family life has been far from satisfactory. The list of disasters does not need to be repeated for readers - the names of the cases already etched into family lawyers' minds. We rightly need to redress the balance and have less bureaucracy and more time for children, as the news item reports:

"professionals focus more on complying with process and regulations than to providing a service that meets the needs of children and young people... an over-bureaucratised system, focused on meeting targets, has reduced the capacity to spend time with children and young people."

Too right; roll on April 2011 and the final report.

Never mind, to end on a slightly more light-hearted note - I have discovered (with the help of The Times on Saturday 9 October) that a certain well-known chain store is set to help individuals find their perfect partner so they can, at least, make a ‘couple'. The well-known store is now providing a range of padded underwear for men to rival the ‘Wonderbra' for women. Purely medicinal, you understand. If you didn't see it in the weekend's press, then you will soon. Coming to a street near you, they are called ‘enhancement pants', and we have only ourselves to blame. What a pity we don't focus on things to improve family life.

Penny sets the questions for Family Law journalCPD, a new way to gain CPD points by answering multiple choice questions based on the content of the journal.

She is an Honorary Research Fellow at Liverpool University Centre for the Study of the Child, the Family and the Law. Click here to follow Penny Booth on Twitter.

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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