Mind over matter: Using psychology to beat Family Court delays

Katie Welton-Dillon

By Katie Welton-Dillon, Partner and Head of the Children’s Law team, Hall Brown Family Law
Some challenges, sadly, are not straightforward and require both ingenuity and collaboration to resolve.

That, I believe, is the case with the difficulties currently faced by family courts across the country in relation to matters involving children.

Data published recently by the Ministry of Justice shows that the courts are dealing with a large volume of often very sensitive issues.

They are often also taking a long time to be concluded.

Cases concluded in the first three months of this year, for instance, took on average four more weeks to reach the point of a court order being made than comparable matters just 12 months before.

It is a problem recognised by government.

Over recent years, it has put its faith in – and considerable sums behind – the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), a variety of non-court-based processes. Chief among them has been mediation.

Couples who cannot resolve disagreements about childcare arrangements or the division of joint marital assets are legally required to attend a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (or MIAM, for short), during which they are told about how mediation works and decide whether it might be of use for them, prior to making an application to court.

In 2021, ministers agreed to underwrite some of the costs of the mediation process – an arrangement extended earlier this year until 2025.

However, despite the positive results which can be achieved by couples who choose it, there is evidence that fewer couples are opting to use mediation beyond the preliminary stage.

In one of his last significant acts as Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab was so concerned at such a development, that he announced a consultation to come up with ways of rejuvenating mediation’s appeal.

Yet, according to the country’s most senior family judge, Sir Andrew McFarlane, mediation is “but one part, albeit an important one, in a patchwork of resources that should be available to support separating parents, spouses and partners to resolve disputes”.

He has suggested that parents involved in children’s law cases should be able to explore a “multi-disciplinary response, involving therapists, parenting specialists, mediators and legal services”.

His reference to therapy is, in my opinion, particularly eye-catching.

That is because I feel therapists and psychologists are some of the unsung heroes of family law, being called upon to undertake incredibly sensitive, yet incredibly vital work.

I have seen in numerous cases how counsellors, therapists and psychologists can make a critical difference, unlocking complex and sensitive issues in a way that the blunt instrument of a court order cannot.

It is not, it must be said, a service without occasional controversy.

A judgement last December underlined the need for “rigour” in determining that psychologists selected for such work are appropriately qualified.

The British Psychological Society (BPS) issued updated guidance in the wake of that ruling to protect the interests of public involved in such cases and the integrity of the court.

There is likely to be even more of an imperative to find effective alternatives to court as the workload handled by the family court continues to increase.

Calling upon professionals across many different disciplines is going to be an important element of any solutions.

Court orders in themselves often do not change behaviour. They can, in fact, lead parents to become more entrenched in their respective positions.

Psychologists, though, can complement the efforts of family lawyers and achieve lasting benefits for families nationwide.