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Annette Brooke: I understand that if both parents are on legal aid, mediation will be free, but I am not sure what happens when, for example, one parent is on legal aid and the other is not. I hope that the Minister will address the issue. Certainly we should consider it in Committee.
The 10 per cent. of cases that reach the courts are those in which people need the most support and problem-solving. It may seem a small percentage, but in terms of numbers it represents a large tragedy. Each year there are 40,000 applications to the courts over child contact, and 70,000 breaches of child contact orders. That should concern us greatly.
The consultation document issued by CAFCASS, "Every Day Matters", makes some good points about intervention. CAFCASS frequently intervenes too late, long after parents' attitudes to each other have hardened, or long after one parent has created a new household excluding his or her former partner. Indeed, many attitudes have hardened long before the first court applicationhence the need for even earlier intervention where possible. Arguments about the fine detail of contact arrangements occupy huge amounts of scarce professional time, often unproductively. Once a court application is made, there is a clear risk of an adversarial model of law being started. The consultation document illustrates why we must put such emphasis on early intervention. However, we must also make information easily accessible. The Minister mentioned the telephone helpline. I understand that booklets are available, but I wonder whether they are necessarily the best format for those who need to access information. I would like to know exactly what is available for parents at the moment and whether, for example, videos as well as printed leaflets are available.
Research by the university of East Anglia and other research indicate that many of the parents among the 10 per cent. that go to court are very young, poorly
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educated and on low incomes with extremely young children. Partly because of their lack of education, they often find it difficult to communicate not only with each other, but with those who try to help them. There may be a deep lack of trust between the parents, a history of violence, or poor parenting skills. Parenting skills play an important part in preventing such situations from becoming adversarial, which is when worries arise about the vulnerability of the children.
We agree with the GovernmentI have done quite a bit of that so farthat mediation cannot be made compulsory. One can put two people in a room with someone but, if they are not prepared to participate, one cannot make it work. However, we support the case for a compulsory referral meeting about mediation. We think that that is where the compulsion should take place. We argue that that meeting should be free, as we do not think that we can compel people to do something and then charge for it. I qualify that by saying that any meeting would need to take account of the principle that the welfare of the child is paramount.
Vera Baird: As the hon. Lady says, it is wrong to compel people to take part in mediation, but is it not also wrong to try to arrange that? There are reservations about mediation where there may be domestic violence issues. Clearly, if someone is to be forced to try to resolve things through a face to face with the person who has been oppressing them for many years, that is an inappropriate model.
Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. and learned Lady. I have mentioned twice in that context that safety must be the prime consideration. It is important that, before we consider mediation, we examine the risk assessments. I said that earlier. I am conscious how dangerousemotionally dangerous, tooit could be to put two such people in a room.
Mr. Stewart Jackson: I am following the hon. Lady's speech closely. Is she aware of the experience in both the United States and Norway, where empirical evidence shows that compulsion largely has worked, and that when people are compelled to take part in mediation it makes a real difference in trying to save the situation from deteriorating further after divorce or separation?
Annette Brooke: I have heard mention of projects in other countries, but have not come across the full, long-term evaluation of them. I feel that, logicallyperhaps my background as a school teacher showed me thiswe cannot make people, or children, do something that they do not want to do.
On the family resolutions pilot project, I know that there was general disappointment about the number of cases that were referred to it. However, it was a starting point. I regret that we cannot discuss the evaluation of that project, as we were not aware that it was put on the website today. I look forward to the Minister telling us a bit about it later.
Returning to mediation, it would help if the court application triggered compulsory attendance at the preliminary meeting. At that introductory sessionthe couple in question might choose to meet the mediator separatelythe options for mediation could be
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outlined, including offers of other parenting help. That information could be given to the parents face to face, which, I suspect, would be the most efficient way of dealing with some of these difficult cases. The first meeting must be free; otherwise, cost could prove a barrier. Of course, there is the question of what happens if one partner is on legal aid and the other is not. If both are not on legal aid, that could present difficulties.
I take on board entirely the point about risk assessment before mediation and the desire to intervene as early as possible. Here, we need to strike a balance. Perhaps that first meeting could be held even before going to court. I realise that that would present difficulties, but the sooner the conciliation process begins, the better. The whole packagemediation, counselling, parenting classes, contact activitiesis important, but we need to consider the money and skills needed to resource such activities. That is particularly true of the domestic violence programmes.
It is difficult to know how big the problem is. Contact is a high-profile issue and we all know of people who feel aggrieved. Indeed, we probably all have friends who have told us how big a problem this is. Such people appear to have genuine grievances and we cannot just brush them aside and say, "We are doing all these other thingsit's going to be all right." We need to address the question of contact and bear in mind the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. A child has the right to direct and regular contact with both parents, unless it is contrary to the child's best interest. It is generally acknowledged to be in the child's best interest to sustain a full relationship with both parents but, obviously, in some cases it is notfor instance, if there is a risk of harm. Indeed, relationships involving conflict can be immensely mentally damaging for the child caught in the middle.
We should not be too prescriptiveI would hate to go down the 50:50 route and argue that that is a fair starting pointbut we should go a bit further than we currently do. As we have heard, various documents acknowledge the presumption of joint contact.
Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I should be interested to hear the hon. Lady's views on the fact that 40 per cent. of parents lose contact with their children within two years of separation or divorce. We need to focus on that issue, because that is the reality.
We have talked at great length here and in the other place about whether it is possible to have two presumptions, and what I hear about the possible undermining of the safety of the child worries me. It is a question of listening. In its written evidence to the Select Committee, Resolutionformerly the Solicitors Family Law Associationsuggested that there should be a first presumption and then a second: the first relating to the child, and a second, lower-order presumption relating to the right to see both parents. That was the position during one of our debates, but when Resolution gave oral evidence to the Select Committee, it appeared to change its mind, supporting instead the insertion of a statement into the welfare
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checklist in the Children Act 1989. It is significant that a major association should, on having listened to what others had said, change its mind in the process of giving evidence.
Vera Baird: I understand the hon. Lady's concern, but Resolution is talking about putting a common-sense presumption in the welfare checklist, whereas the Tory Opposition advocate a legal presumption. However, an absolute legal presumption cannot be changed. If it is rebuttable, it can be rebutted, but it still has to be overturned, and that is a very different matter.
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