Saturday 1 October 2016

Archers domestic drama raises family court issues

Published 01/05/2016 | 04:31

The Archers' tale of Rob, Helen and Henry touches on topical family court litigation issues - including access to legal aid and transparency, Cafcass officials say.

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A Cafcass spokeswoman suggested that Helen might get legal aid to pay for lawyers to represent her at family court hearings if she complained of being coerced by Rob.

But Ambridge villagers would not be able to attend family court hearings about Henry or read reports of proceedings in the Borchester Echo because members of the public are barred from hearings and reporters barred from identifying children involved.

"Helen should be eligible for legal aid for family proceedings, subject to her financial situation, as coercive control is now recognised in law and practice as a form of domestic violence," said the spokeswoman.

"Given that she has not called the police or told her GP about the abuse it will be interesting to see whether this features in the storyline and, if she seeks legal aid, whether she qualifies."

The spokeswoman added: "Everyone working in family justice has been openly promoting greater transparency in the family courts, in recognition of greater public expectation in this area.

"While there continue to be legal restrictions which prevent many details of cases from being reported, accredited journalists are now able to attend and report on most hearings.

"The identity of children caught up in family proceedings cannot be reported.

"Journalists and judges are aware of the possibility of published judgments and articles leading to jigsaw identification, particularly in a small town such as Ambridge."

The spokeswoman said Henry's best interests would be a family court's judge's priority.

"In most cases following an application to change the living arrangements for a child, the court will ask for the assistance of a Cafcass family court adviser, who is always a qualified, trained and experienced social worker," she said.

"They will interview both sides and collect any information held by police or local authorities to make an initial assessment of risk to the child.

"If significant concerns are raised, or if the judge needs more information to make a safe (in child protection terms) decision, the court will ask Cafcass to prepare a written report, which is an assessment of the child's welfare.

"In many cases this involves asking the child what they are experiencing and what they would like to happen."

She went on: "In cases where domestic violence is alleged and disputed the court will often pause the family proceedings to hold a 'finding of fact' hearing when the court will decide who is telling the truth and what actually happened, as far as this can be established.

"Given that the arrangements for children need to be decided as soon as possible, in many cases family courts often have to make decisions months before the criminal proceedings conclude."

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