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Family Law

The leading authority on all aspects of family law

17 APR 2015

Jo Edwards' Speech to Resolution National Conference

Jo Edwards' Speech to Resolution National Conference
Good morning everyone, and thank you Sharon for your typically warm welcome.

It gives me great pride to be standing before you today in my home town of Brighton. Those in the know will testify that last year’s conference venue, Manchester, happens to have been the city of my birth. However, any suggestion that the Chair influences the conference location is both scurrilous and untrue. Besides, as Sue Gunn will testify, if I’d had my way we’d have been enjoying the water flumes at Butlins of Bognor this year…

Luckily for all of you, Brighton is rather more enjoyable, as reflected in the record number of people attending conference this year – around 500 in total. I’d like to extend my enormous thanks to Sharon and the whole East Sussex region for hosting us this year. Sharon, you’re a credit to your region, and to Resolution.

The last 12 months

With a general election on the horizon, they say a week is a long time in politics. Yet in family law, 12 months pass in the blink of an eye. It seems like only yesterday that I became your newly-elected Chair. 12 months on, and whilst the ‘newness’ of it may have diminished, the pride I have in our organisation, our values, and our members, is as strong now as it was a year ago.

And as we reflect on the past 12 months, I’m reminded that when we last came together, we were a fortnight away from some of the most significant changes to the family justice system that many of us had ever seen – with the opening of the Single Family Court, and the introduction of Child Arrangement Orders, the 26 week rule, statutory MIAMs, and other measures in the Children and Families Act. A big part of our work in the last 12 months has been to monitor the impact of the changes, listen to your concerns and liaise with judges, HMCTS and ministers to improve the family justice system for all.

The family courts

The changes which were looming then are now a reality, and embedded in our daily practice.

Yet the after-effects of so much change are still being measured, and responses to our recent member survey on the impact of the reforms one year on underline just how profound they have been. Over 400 members from across the country responded, and while we’ll be publicising the detail of the results in coming weeks, there are some clear common themes emerging.

  • Overall, most of you said that the experience of your local court for you and your clients has got worse since the reforms.
  • There are concerns about the new forms being used – particularly the new Form A.
  • Most of you have found that money and children cases are taking longer.
  • And most of you have said changes to counter services have made it more difficult to issue applications, or indeed to have any administrative interaction with the court.
The feedback from our members on how the courts are operating should not be misinterpreted as criticism of judges and court staff. Like many others in the public sector, they are working within significant financial constraints and for the most part are doing their best in challenging circumstances. But when that leads to inefficiency, delay and potentially injustice for families, that is wrong.

Legal aid

With any systemic change, it always takes time for things to bed in and for people to get to grips with new ways of working.

But when you take the April 2014 reforms in tandem with the avalanche of changes in the family justice system in recent years, I think it’s fair to say we’re all feeling a bit overwhelmed.

And nowhere is this more acutely felt than in legal aid.

It would be short-sighted to fail to make the connection between the legal aid cuts and the difficulties faced now by the family courts. No matter what the MoJ may say to the contrary, our own experience, and that of the judges to whom we speak, is clear – cases involving litigants in person do take longer than those where there is at least an element of legal representation.

In its recent report into the impact of LASPO, the Justice Select Committee reached the overall conclusion that the changes to legal aid 'has harmed access to justice'. The report also said that the changes ended up costing the courts more because of the increase in litigants in person; that legal aid wasn’t being targeted properly; and that the government had no idea of the knock-on costs to other areas of public spending.

These points have been made by Resolution on many occasions over the past 2 years, including in the evidence that we gave to the Justice Select Committee last September. They will not come as any surprise to those of you living with these changes on a day-to-day basis. And nowhere is this felt more acutely than in dealing with victims of domestic abuse.

For me, the imposition of barriers to those who remain entitled to – and are in most need of – legal aid, is a damning indictment of how we as a society treat vulnerable people.

CCMS

Now there is yet another challenge facing beleaguered legal aid practitioners, who arguably do the most vital work of any of us. This October, the Legal Aid Agency plan to make their new online Client Cost Management System compulsory for all legal aid providers.

For those of you not familiar with it, CCMS was heralded as a new, faster, digital way of submitting civil legal aid applications. It was first piloted more than 2 years ago in the North East, and Resolution members there initially embraced the changes. And across the organisation, the way we saw it, anything that reduces the administrative burden had to be a good thing.

Sadly, the reality is very different. CCMS has been beset with problems since its introduction. We welcome online working but this is not the way to do it.

Over the past 2 years, Resolution has been trying to communicate the scale of these problems to the Legal Aid Agency, through feedback provided by our members. But despite our ongoing dialogue with senior figures there; regular written representations; and even a recent meeting with the legal aid Minister – the problems remain. Led by our former chair Liz Edwards, and co-chair of the Legal Aid Committee Elspeth Thomson, members have worked tirelessly to seek improvements.

Until now we’ve taken the view that it’s better to try to work with the LAA rather than against them. But, increasingly, we feel we’re banging our head against a brick wall. They seem intent on rolling CCMS out in October, at any cost, despite the very many difficulties we have long been flagging: the fact that the system continues to be unstable; that users can’t keep a record of what they’ve actually submitted; and that it is so slow, it can take 3 times as long as the paper process.

At the last count, the Legal Aid Agency had spent over £35m pounds on this ill-fated project. When set against the scale of the legal aid cuts introduced in April 2013, and the huge number of vulnerable people now deprived of access to justice who could benefit from some of this budget being used to fund some legal advice, this is nothing short of a national scandal.

My message to the Legal Aid Agency today is simple – just because something works for you, doesn’t mean that it works.

There may have been some improvements in CCMS as a result of our work, and we welcome this. But if the system is rolled out in its current form, there will be untold difficulties come October. I say to those at the LAA – you need to listen to what practitioners are saying, and act on it now, for your own sake as much as anyone else’s.

This is not a political point – and be in no doubt, we will be just as vociferous on CCMS – and our concerns over the removal of legal aid – after the General Election, regardless of who is in power.

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Our achievements

But despite the challenges we all face, we have much to be optimistic about. There may have been bumps in the road, and in some cases great big craters, in the last 12 months. But together, we’ve also achieved a lot.

  • A few weeks ago we launched our Manifesto for Family Law, our blueprint for reform to the family justice system that we believe will help more separating families to resolve their disputes with the minimum of conflict. This includes – and it seems bizarre that we’re still having to campaign for change in this area – a call for no fault divorce, in which we are supported by a growing tide of opinion.
  • Talking of matters policy-related, over the past 12 months we’ve responded to countless consultations concerning topics as diverse as transparency, financial remedies, children and vulnerable witnesses, domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, international issues, civil partnership and the impact of LASPO.
  • Through our Direct Connect Initiative our regions are now working more closely together than ever before, and are more closely connected with National Committee and our specialist committees. There will be more information in coming weeks about how we will harness that enthusiasm to influence national developments in the family courts.
  • In November we had our third national Family Dispute Resolution Week, which surpassed all expectations in terms of media coverage: we generated over 28 million opportunities to see, more than double the 2013 total, securing the front page of The Times and what felt like wall-to-wall media coverage on TV and radio. The regional engagement was really positive and for the first time we reached out to another jurisdiction and involved Scottish DR organisations, which we plan to extend further afield this year.

Resolution in the media

Media is an important part of what we do and we’re increasing our media coverage more generally. With the amount of change taking place in family law, it’s important that we continue to position ourselves at the forefront of the debate, as the go-to voice for comment on all aspects of family law.

Regional press coverage is just as important as national – it’s particularly pleasing to get feedback from Sharon, or any of our regional spokespeople, about how they’ve been spreading the word.

Nationally we have issued some 62 press releases in the last 12 months. At least some of you will have seen examples of the media coverage we’ve generated, but in case you haven’t, I wanted to share some highlights [at this point a video was shown in the hall].

In the past 12 months, people have often said to me in conversation that they’ve recently seen me on the TV or in print, or heard me on the radio. And, whilst I always apologise profusely, on a serious note it’s good to hear that the Resolution word is getting out there.

Our volunteers

We’re lucky at Resolution to have around 1,500 members playing a vital role in our organisation, and whether you’re involved at a regional or national level, you are all making an invaluable contribution to the way the organisation is run.

That is why our aim is to make the most of the collective talents we have in the organisation and to redouble our efforts to really make a difference to how family law is practised. It has been a personal objective of mine in the past year to demystify the whole process of joining a committee and to try to ensure there is a place for everyone who wants to make a positive contribution.

Planning for the future

Your National Committee and staff team, supported by our specialist committees and regional chairs, are busy planning for the future. Through our future building projects, and our organisational priorities in 2015 of supporting changing practices, reviewing our training and learning strategy, and refining the way we communicate with members and our regions, we hope to continue to make this an organisation of which you’re proud to be members.

YRes

Talking of looking to the future, this year’s conference sees the formal national launch of YRes. Because I started my Resolution journey with the London YRes group, far too many years ago than I care to divulge, I’m particularly passionate about this. On my watch I am determined that we do all we can to encourage the next generation of Resolution. It is in all our interests to ensure that Resolution’s values are being promoted across all who work in the family justice sector, and particularly among those starting out in their careers. It’s good for our organisation, it’s good for the profession, and it’s good for our firms to be supporting, developing and investing in their – and our – future.

Because be in no doubt, within the growing ranks of YRes are the senior partners, NC members, and National Chairs of tomorrow. That is why we’re committed to YRes and I’m personally delighted that we are strengthening their role within the organisation.

I’m also pleased that we have around 250 YRes members attending conference across the 2 days here in Brighton, and I look forward to seeing many of them – and others – at their launch this evening; and to hearing from Lucy Loizou and the six YRes members who formed the working party which has driven today’s launch. I encourage everyone here to attend and support them.

Voice of the Child

Finally, a word about the important position of children and young people in the family justice system.

At the very heart of our Code of Practice is the importance of putting children’s interests first. I think that for all our members, when you speak to young people who have lived through their parents’ divorce, or have otherwise been involved in the family justice system, that’s when you’re reminded just why you became a family lawyer – and joined Resolution – in the first place.

We’ll hear shortly from Shyster Manzoor and Claire Evans from the Family Justice Young People’s Board, who provide just such a reminder; and from Mr Justice Hayden, who has co-chaired the Children and Vulnerable Witnesses working group.

I’m proud to say we’ve worked closely with the Family Justice Young People’s Board to develop our Parenting Charter. It forms the cornerstone of our Manifesto for Family Law, seeking to help members have those difficult conversations with parents which help them to place their children’s interests front and centre of discussions about separation.

We will continue to push the Charter, continue to contribute to the government’s work on the Voice of the Child, and continue to train our members and promote our Code - not because it helps us, but because it helps the 100,000 children and young people who see their parents divorce each year.

The year ahead

So as we face the year ahead, we reflect upon the fact that there is still much more for us to achieve as an organisation and as individuals within it.

There is much in family law that needs to change for the better.

And there is much more that we can – and will – do to support separating families.

Let’s go out there and do it together.

Thank you – and have a fabulous conference.
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