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    Step-parent adoption: Insight from a family lawyer

    This National Adoption Week, we share insights into step-parent adoption during the pandemic from Stowe family lawyer, and adoption specialist, Shanika Varga-Haynes:
    Step-parent adoption
    It is difficult to find any official statistics on the number of step-parents adoptions taking place in the UK with the figures focusing on the number of children being adopted out of the care system. 
    However, as a family solicitor and adoption specialist, I have noticed an increase in this area, through both enquiries, and my caseload. 
    Adoption is a varied and broad area of family law, and all cases bring great reward and challenges. However, Covid-19 and the multiple lockdowns have brought an extra layer of complexity to these already complicated cases. 
    What is step-parent adoption?
    Step-parent adoptions arise when the partner of one of the biological parents wants to adopt the child. The consequence of step-parent adoption is the other biological parent loses their parental responsibility. 
    These applications are usually made where there is an absent biological parent who has little to no involvement in the child’s life for some time. The other biological parent is in a new relationship, and their partner has taken on the parenting role. 
    There can be a reluctance to issue the application as it may result in the other biological parent seeking contact, which they otherwise would not have done. 
    Where the non-resident parent has relatively regular contact with a child, the court tends to be slow to make the adoption order given the serious consequence of the loss of parental responsibility. 
    There are exceptions to this, for example, if the non-resident parent supports the adoption; however, even then, the court will give the decision as to whether to grant the adoption order the weight it deserves.
    Who is involved in step-parent adoption?
    An application for a step-parent adoption involves numerous parties: the step-parent wishing to adopt is the applicant, their partner is the first respondent, the child’s other biological parent is the second respondent, and a guardian can be appointed to represent the child. 
    Other professionals involved in the case will be the judge, legal representation, the local authority who will produce the initial report and often a reporting officer.
    Race for time
    In the early stages of the pandemic, getting applications for step-parent adoptions issued became difficult as the family court was (and still is) prioritising work, and they were not at the top of the list. 
    This delay directly impacted one of my cases where due to a number of reasons, the application for adoption was processed the day before the child’s 18th birthday.
    Adoption applications can only be made if the child has not reached 18. Provided the application is made before the child’s 18th birthday, then it can proceed. If the child turns 19 during the proceedings, an adoption order cannot be made. 
    This meant that we had to make sure the application was dealt with before the child turned 19. Usually, that wouldn’t be too much of a concern as there are time frames the court follows to ensure cases involving children are dealt with as quickly as practicably possible. 
    However, the family courts were stretched before Covid-19, and the delays have noticeably worsened over the past year.
    The impact of delays
    In this case, several factors caused delays. At the beginning of the adoption case, the local authority provides a detailed report to the court about the parties and the child. 
    This report takes several months to complete as it can include interviews with friends and family, details about previous relationships, health, finances and the views of all involved in the case, including the child. The report ends with a recommendation being made to the court.
    Further delays can be caused by the collation of medical evidence. In cases where the applicant is the partner of a parent of the child, in accordance with FPR rule 14.12(c), it is not necessary for medical reports to be obtained. However, if the adopter is another family member such as an aunt, waiting for the medical evidence could add further delays. 
    At the same time, as the report is produced, safeguarding checks are carried out. Unfortunately, in this case, the local authority failed to do these checks. We were notified of this just before the first hearing, meaning a delay of several months whilst they were carried out.
    Due to their complex nature, adoption cases are dealt with by higher-level judges. There is also a preference to have judicial continuity, quite rightly, but this can cause delays due to judicial availability. 
    The first hearing on this matter was adjourned four times, once due to the local authority and three times due to the judge’s availability.
     Again, with a typical case, this wouldn’t be too concerning, but we only had a 12-month window to ensure the order was made. The application was issued in early summer, but by January the following year, we still hadn’t had the first hearing which gave little time for the next steps.
    Usually, the Annex A report prepared by the local authority is filed at court but not released to the parties immediately, although a request can be made for it to be released before the first hearing to speed the process up where time is sensitive. 
    In this particular case, we obtained permission from the Judge to have the report released in advance of the first hearing, so the contents could be considered and the matter progressed without the need for a further hearing. If this request hadn’t been granted we would have been at risk of matters not being finalised before the child turned 19.
    Opposite ends of the world
    This case also involved international elements as although both the biological father and mother consented to the adoption order being made, they lived abroad in separate countries with the applicant step-parent and the child living in England. 
    This was a complicated setup, and one of our challenges was to show the court and the local authority that the applicant and first respondent met the condition of being a married couple. They were a family unit but lived separately for various reasons, visiting each other every 6 weeks where possible. Although COVID-19 had meant this wasn’t possible over the past 12 months. 
    They met the criteria of the child having lived with the applicant for six continuous months prior to the application, but more detail than usual had to be provided regarding the intricacies of the relationship between the applicant step-parent and first respondent. 
    Adoption guardian
    The Judge also decided they wanted a guardian to report on the international element as there were three parties living in three different countries. This was required despite everyone consenting to the application and the Local Authority supporting it.
    The guardian’s role was to report on the living arrangements and assist the court with taking the necessary consents from the parties.
    The guardian confirmed they were satisfied the order should be made. The parties had confirmed their agreement on numerous occasions however it’s imperative that consents are executed and recorded properly. 
    Obtaining proper consent in a global pandemic
    During the pandemic giving consent via video call has been permitted.  However, due to the fact the first and second respondent lived outside of the jurisdiction this was not possible as FPR rule 14.10 (6) states:
    (6) Any form of consent executed outside the United Kingdom must be witnessed by –
    (a) any person for the time being authorised by law in the place where the document is executed to administer an oath for any judicial or other legal purpose;
    (b) a British Consular officer;
    (c) a notary public; or
    (d) if the person executing the document is serving in any of the regular armed forces of the Crown, an officer holding a commission in any of those forces.
    At this point, every country had different rules regarding COVID-19.  Therefore, there were concerns as to whether the first and second respondent would be able to ensure their consent was executed properly as we were unsure as to whether they would have access to someone who met the criteria above. 
    Thankfully the consents were executed and sent to the court and the adoption order was made two months before the child’s 19th birthday.  
    Managing adoption hearings during Covid-19
    Another issue I have experienced over the past year, and expect to in the futur, is the practicalities of a court hearing.  
    There are numerous parties and professionals involved in an adoption case and family courtrooms are not particularly large, especially when accommodating social distancing.
    Last October, one of my adoption hearings required nine people to attend. The hearing proceeded as a hybrid hearing with the local authority joining via video link and due to the fact we were in a Nightingale Court (large hotel conference room) there was thankfully enough space for the hearing to proceed safely. 
    I suspect if we hadn’t had the use of the Nightingale Court we would have had to limit who attended the hearing which could have resulted in complaints about fairness.
     Adoption in the future
    Whilst the pandemic has certainly brought challenges to the adoption process, I am hopeful that we will eventually return to normal, although I expect it won’t be as quick as we all hope. 
    It’s hard to see how the adoption process could be made easier, adoption has huge legal implications and therefore there must be a stringent process. I would like to see cases dealt with more quickly but balancing speed and the need to ensure the right decision is being made for a child is difficult.  
    Adoption cases are extremely rewarding and it is wonderful to have the opportunity to help build a family and transform a child’s life and future
    Get in touch
    If you would like any advice on step-parent adoption, adoption, or other family law issues, please contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist lawyers.
    Useful Links
    Adoption UK
    Adoption Matters
    Stowe’s Adoption Services More

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    How to prepare for meeting your divorce lawyer

    Understandably, your first meeting with your divorce lawyer can feel daunting and is likely to be emotionally charged. Whether you’re going through divorce for the first time, or you’ve been through divorce before, it is a life-altering experience.
    Thankfully we understand what you’re going though. It’s our job is to listen to you, to share our professional advice – tailored to your exact circumstances, and to guide you through the process of divorce step by step.
    To get the most from your initial consultation with your lawyer, and to ensure that you receive the most beneficial advice, here are our top tips to help you get ready for that meeting:

    Think about the outcome you want

    We focus on working together with you to reach your desired outcome and settlement. So, it’s useful to consider what outcome you’d like to achieve. Consider whether there is a workable solution that we can help you to realise, or if there are any areas that you anticipate will be a particular challenge.
    At Stowe, we have a team of people that really understand family law so you can be sure that you’ll have the right team of people by your side, whatever you decide.

    Come prepared

    It is always helpful if clients know as much as possible about the details of their finances. It’s also useful if you know the same information about your ex-partner and their financial circumstances.
    Where appropriate, during the first appointment we will discuss the value of your family home, any mortgages, and the details and value of any assets and liabilities (debts) you and your partner have.
    While it’s not necessary to provide exact details, or any documents, at this early stage, it is a good idea to do some preparation so that you have a good overview of yours and your ex-partner’s circumstances.

    Bring your questions

    We understand that this can be a time of uncertainty and can raise a host of questions, some of which you won’t have considered before you meet your lawyer. We’re here to guide you through the process, so don’t be afraid to ask us anything. There is no question too big or too small. If there is anything that you don’t understand, or legal jargon that you’d like explaining, always ask your lawyer.
    Our goal is to help you move forward in life. We will take the strain for you and be by your side throughout to answer questions so that you can move on from a position of renewed strength.

    Make sure it is a convenient time

    Seeking legal advice about your family matters is always beneficial, whether it’s divorce, child law, financial matters or any other family law concerns. By it’s nature it does involve sharing personal and sometimes sensitive information in order to inform your lawyer and get the best possible outcome. The initial consultation is an information gathering and option exploring exercise so it is essential that you are comfortable and, in an environment where you can speak freely.
    Ensuring you have the privacy to speak openly is key, so if you need to rearrange your initial meeting for a more convenient time, just let your lawyer know.
    FAQs
    Q. Can I ask a friend, or member of my family, to be with me?
    A. Yes, of course. A trusted friend or family member can join calls or attend meetings with you.
    Q.What happens after our meeting?
     A. As each case is unique the next steps are always tailored to your individual circumstances and will be discussed during your meeting as well as any questions that you have.
    As a client you can choose to go away and consider everything that has been discussed, or instruct your solicitor then and there, it is entirely up to you. There is no pressure at all to make any decisions.
    You’ll receive a follow up email after your meeting so that you have our contact details to hand should you need us further.
    Q. How long does an initial consultation typically take?
     A. The length of the initial meeting depends on a number of factors but typically takes around 30 minutes.
    Further reading:
    Your first meeting with a divorce lawyer
    Meeting A Divorce Solicitor For The First Time
    Get in touch
    If you would like any advice on on divorce, or other family law issues, you can read further articles or contact our Client Care Team to arrange your initial meeting with one of our divorce lawyers.  More

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    5 Reasons a Nuptial Agreement may be right for you

    Nuptial Agreements are made ether before or during a marriage or civil partnership and set out how a couple’s assets and property would be split should they divorce or legally separate. Here Vicki Rawlins, Partner at our Winchester office, explains Nuptial Agreements in more detail and shares the reasons why married couples should consider getting one.

    Timing

    Whilst most people have heard of a Pre-Nuptial Agreement, fewer people have heard of a Post-Nuptial Agreement. Both Agreements are similar in content and share the aim to resolve financial and practical difficulties in the event of a future separation as amicable and straightforward as possible.
    Pre-Nuptial Agreements are completed before the wedding and there is clear guidance as to the desired time between the Agreement being finalised and the wedding taking place.
    Post-Nuptial Agreements can take place at any time after the wedding and prior to any separation.
    Timing is therefore a factor to be considered to determine which Nuptial Agreement would be preferable, but one can be completed either during the engagement or marriage.

    Protection

    A Nuptial Agreement is designed to determine how the couple will deal with and separate their finances in the event of a separation and / or a divorce or dissolution.
    Traditionally the Nuptial Agreement will set out how the couple wish to separate assets that one or both have brought with them to the marriage. This could for example relate to property, investments, or business interests. Consideration can however also be given to future assets that may be received or obtained during the marriage, either individually or as a couple. Examples of these could relate to an inherited gift or a property purchased together as a couple.
    Whatever terms the couple agree will form the starting point for division of assets if they do go on to separate. Whilst nothing can prevent one spouse from trying to override the terms of the Agreement, the terms of the Nuptial Agreement must then be considered, and the focus will be on that spouse to persuade the court that the terms should be changed.
    In general terms provided certain guidance has been followed by the couple when the Agreement is reached, and the terms agreed are not fundamentally unfair to one spouse, the court will seek to follow the Nuptial Agreement wherever possible. This therefore gives the couple the best available protection in the event of a separation.

    Collaboration

    As a Nuptial Agreement will be completed when the couple are still in a relationship, it makes it much easier to focus on the practical and financial issues to be considered. Trying to resolve such matters after a separation is made much more difficult due to the emotions that both will be experiencing alongside likely major lifestyle changes such as a change of home. This is even more so if the separation has not been a mutual decision made by both spouses.
    Choosing to consider and agree these issues in advance, taking the couples’ specific aims and priorities into account, greatly increases the prospects of reaching a fair and amicable agreement.

    Flexibility

    Terms are agreed between the couple and can be as wide or as narrow as they see fit. The Nuptial Agreement could simply deal with just one asset or could set out how the couple wish to divide all assets and income should they later separate. It is an adaptable document which will be tailored to the couples’ needs.
    Whilst it is possible to include in a Nuptial Agreement how they wish to deal with possible future events, no-one can see into the future. Something may happen which the couple had not envisaged, or they may feel differently about an event when it does then happen.
    Nuptial Agreements are flexible as they can be updated as and when the need arises, provided the couple can agree such amendments. It is common for Nuptial Agreements to include provision for review and possible updates at specific intervals, for example every 3-5 years, or upon certain events happening such as having a child. Ultimately whether such terms are included will be the couples’ decision and will form part of the negotiations.

    Savings

    Nuptial Agreements will ordinarily save the couple time, money, and stress.
    If a couple separate without having had a Nuptial Agreement, negotiations will then be necessary. Various factors can make this a very difficult process. In those cases, the only option may be to begin contested court proceedings.
    In those circumstances the matter is unlikely to be resolved for at least 1-2 years, during which time the couple’s lives will often be in limbo. The costs of such negotiations, and especially court proceedings, will generally be much more expensive than the costs of a Nuptial Agreement. Finally, the emotional impact and stress that this will have on the couple is far greater than the alternative.
    Nuptial Agreements are growing in the UK and can be viewed as an option for consideration akin to financial planning advice.  Specific legal advice should be sought to consider the couples’ individual needs and priorities before entering into a Nuptial Agreement.
    Get in touch 
    If you would like any advice on Nuptial Agreements or other family law issues, please contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist divorce lawyers here.  More

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    Surrogacy – to agree or not to agree? That is the question

    Those embarking on the path to having a child via the surrogacy route are often surprised that in the UK, unlike in many other countries, you cannot enter into an enforceable contract with your surrogate.
    This is mainly due to fact that in the UK, surrogacy is an entirely altruistic endeavour. However, this often leaves intended parents and surrogates alike feeling unsure as to how best to proceed, or how to ensure the surrogacy runs smoothly.
    The Law
    Although a solicitor cannot draw up any agreement, as this is a criminal offence under The Surrogacy Arrangements Act, this does not prevent the surrogate, a spouse or partner, and the intended parent(s), from sitting down together to discuss their ‘deal breakers’ and drawing up a formal document, called a Surrogacy Agreement, outlining what has been agreed.
    Surrogacy Agreements
    Surrogacy Agreements outline the issues raised during discussions, the specific terms of the shared agreement, and the chosen approach that all the parties will take – although the agreement is still not be enforceable should any party act in contravention of the terms.
    When speaking with intended parents or surrogates I provide early advice on the process of surrogacy, confirm their legal position, and give guidance on making an application for a parental order – the process of becoming a legal parent of the child – which is required.
    We recommend that you engage in these discussions with all parties, and consider all of implications, before the implantation of an embryo. Take the time, before starting the process, to sit down and have these difficult discussions. Whilst these can be a little awkward, it often helps to open the lines of communication and to build a good relationship between the parties.
    What should be included in the agreement?
    The agreement should include details of the parties’ positions, discussions and agreements reached such as;

    Decisions about the pregnancy
    Who will attend scans and appointments
    How you would deal with any difficult issues that arise, including medical issues (although of course the surrogate will always retain the right to make her own medical decisions)
    Arrangements about the birth and post birth
    Arrangements surrounding the application for the parental order
    Expenses and arrangements for payments
    Any other issues, or moral and ethical decisions you deem necessary to ensure you are all on the same page.

    Covid-19
    At present, intended parents may also need to consider whether they want their surrogate to have had a Covid vaccine or not and, if the surrogate is going to be vaccinated, whether or not she does this before the implantation of the embryo.
    If the parties do not agree on this issue, then they should talk openly about their concerns and include this specifically in the surrogacy agreement. Even if an agreement cannot be reached, discussing the issue can help to understand the others position and can assist with deciding how you move forwards.
    Why make an agreement if it is not enforceable?
    This surrogacy agreement can be shared with any relevant third parties, such as clinics or hospitals, so that they can understand the situation without the need for you to clarify your circumstances and the details of what has been agreed.
    Nobody knows what the future holds, but by formally recording your arrangements you have a definitive record of the agreement to refer to at a later date, should the need arise.
    This helps to ensure everyone’s wishes, and the agreements reached, continue to be respected and provide reassurance should there be a breakdown in the relationship.
    Final thoughts
    Although it is unlikely the surrogacy agreement will be able to cover every conceivable disagreement that might arise, it does offer peace of mind by helping you to reduce conflict around the most common issues.
    Furthermore, it opens up the channels of communication, facilitating discussions, and helping all parties to see each other’s point of view. This collaborative approach will help you to reach agreements if other issues, that had not previously been considered, arise.
    Ultimately, although unenforceable, discussions between the parties and the resultant surrogacy agreement are hugely beneficial, and important for all involved, to ensure everyone’s understanding and expectations are aligned.
    Get in touch
    If you are considering surrogacy and would like advice on this or other family law issues, please contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist surrogacy lawyers here. More

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    Firm Associate John Kappel Earns Board Certification in Family Law

    DALLAS – Orsinger, Nelson, Downing & Anderson is pleased to announce that attorney John Kappel has become Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. 
     
    Mr. Kappel is the firm’s 14th attorney to receive such a distinction, which is earned by less than 1 percent of eligible Texas attorneys. To earn certification, attorneys receive a concentration of continuing legal education and must complete an exam, among other qualifications. 
     
    “Passing the exam to become board certified is a significant milestone,” said firm Managing Partner Brad LaMorgese. “We are especially proud of John’s achievement and the level of commitment he provides to his Family Law clients.” 
     
    Mr. Kappel joined ONDA in 2019 with a practice focusing on divorce, property division, multijurisdictional child custody, and appeals.
     
    “Board certification in Family Law gives your practice that extra credibility with clients and other attorneys,” said Mr. Kappel. “I am honored to join others at the firm in earning that distinction.”  
     
    Mr. Kappel is a graduate of Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, with an undergraduate degree from Baylor University. A native of Dallas, he is a member of the Dallas Bar Association Family Law Section and Dallas Association of Young Lawyers. 
     
    Orsinger, Nelson, Downing & Anderson (ONDA) has served families for more than 30 years. With offices in Dallas, Frisco, Fort Worth and San Antonio, ONDA is one of Texas’ largest Family Law firms. Each partner is Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, as well as a member of the Texas Academy of Family Law Specialists.   More

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    Preparing for family court

    Preparing for family court
    On average, 80% of the divorce cases we handle do not go to court, instead reaching an agreement between the couple themselves, negotiation between solicitors, collaborative law or mediation.
    However, despite the significant financial and emotional costs involved, an agreement cannot be made in some situations, and there is no other option than to go to the family court.
    Once proceedings have been issued, they cannot be ignored and even if negotiations are ongoing, it is important to prepare for court in parallel, so you know what to expect on the day and how to handle it.
    A notice of hearing from the court confirming the date for your hearing brings a mixture of emotions: the end of a long wait, relief that the process is moving forward and often a mix of dread and anxiety.
    It is natural to feel nervous, and the following article is designed to help you prepare for your court hearing and give you some tips and hints on what to expect. 
    Before the court hearing
    Once you receive the notice of hearing, do read it carefully.
    There are several different types of family court hearings depending on the type of application. For example, the case may be listed as a directions hearing, a dispute resolution appointment, a fact-finding etc.
    Preparing the court bundle
    The court bundle contains all the documents and information listed in a certain order with an index at the front, and each page is numbered. Bundles are used in court by the judge and the parties, making it easier for everyone to refer to documents quickly.
    The notice of hearing will also specify whose responsibility it is to prepare the court bundle. This is very important as that person needs to make sure that the court and all parties have a full copy of the papers before the hearing. The bundle should be agreed upon between the parties and a full copy sent to the court, usually three days before the hearing.
    The notice of hearing may specify, but it is also helpful to prepare a brief position statement for the court, which will be sent to the court the day before, setting out your position and acting as a summary for the Judge/Magistrates.
    The position statement should specify:

    The date

    Case number

    Name of the parties

    What has happened since the last court hearing

    Any concerns that you have, such as if the other party has failed to comply with the previous order

    What you want the court to order at the hearing, such as permission to file a statement or request disclosure from the other party’s bank statements in a financial hearing.

    The position statement should ideally be exchanged with the other party before you go into the court hearing, so you both know and understand the other person’s position. It is usually around two A4 pages long.
    Once you receive a notice of hearing, you may also want to consider whether you would like to obtain legal advice. This can include legal advice surrounding and preparing for the hearing from a solicitor, or you may also want a barrister who will be able to represent you and speak on your behalf at the hearing.
    If your budget allows, I would always suggest obtaining some level of legal advice so that you can feel prepared and informed ahead of the hearing.
    If you wish to obtain legal representation or advice, the sooner you can speak to a solicitor, the better so that they have adequate time to prepare for the hearing.
    This may include, for example, any statements (in addition to the position statement), or a Form E, which will need to be filed with the court before hearing.
    Preparing for family court – practical arrangements on the day
    Firstly, you should make sure you are available on the day. The courts very rarely change the date of a hearing, and you should do everything you can to make sure you do attend.
    Usually, the hearing would be in person and held at a court building. However, in the pandemic, most hearings are now held either by telephone or by video link. The notice of hearing that you receive from the court should specify what method the court will use.
    Virtual court hearings
    If it is being held by telephone or video, do make sure you have provided your relevant contact details to the court ahead of the hearing. Different courts have adopted different approaches; some prefer to dial you into the hearing, whilst others will send you a link or number to call or use.
    Please ensure that you are in a quiet room with good reception/WIFI where no one in your household will disrupt you.
    It is advisable to make arrangements for children to be looked after throughout the hearing, as the courts would not expect you to bring them to a court building nor be present during any hearing held remotely.
    In-person hearings
    If your court hearing is being held in person, ensure that you get to the court building at least one hour before your hearing time. There may be an opportunity to discuss or even negotiate some of the issues with your opponent/their legal representatives before going into the courtroom to help narrow down the issues.
    If your case is a children case, CAFCASS or Social Services may also be in attendance and wish to speak to you before the hearing.
    If you have any disabilities that may affect your ability to participate in or access the hearing, please let the court know when you receive the court date’s notice.
    For example, if you are deaf or hard of hearing, you may struggle to participate in a remote hearing and request a hearing in person instead. Similarly, if you or your household is in the clinically vulnerable category or is shielding, it may be more appropriate for the hearing to be held remotely.
    If you require an interpreter, please ensure the court is aware of your requirements, and they can discuss options with you.
    Preparing for family court – on arrival at the court
    On arrival at court, you will need to go through security, including going through metal detectors and having your bags searched.
    You should register with the court’s Usher so they know that you have arrived and where you are sitting.
    Although the court will allocate you a fixed time for the hearing, it may be that you are delayed going in as the Judge/Magistrates are dealing with another case first.
    There may be several cases listed simultaneously as your case, so be prepared to be patient, you might be there all day!
    Although there are some private rooms, if they are already occupied, you may be sitting in a larger waiting room until you get called in.
    In circumstances where there is a history of domestic abuse or violence, or you feel scared or threatened by your opponent, you can request safeguarding provisions from the court to include separate waiting rooms, screens between you in court or providing evidence/dialling into the court via video link.
    If this is applicable, please contact the court as soon as possible so they can assist you. Where necessary, the court’s will decide on your particular set of circumstances as to how they can assist.
    You can bring a friend, relative or support worker to sit with you before the court hearing. They will not be allowed in the courtroom itself but can provide support/company pre and post-hearing if required.
    Alternatively, if you are attending court without a lawyer, you can also ask the court’s permission that this person acts as your McKenzie Friend, which is when they are allowed in the courtroom to assist you.
    They cannot speak on your behalf (save for in exceptional circumstances) but can support you through the hearing by taking notes and providing suggestions.
    Some services offer McKenzie Friends, but please note that they may not be legally qualified. If you bring a McKenzie Friend to the court, you should let the Usher know on arrival.
    Preparing for family court – during the court hearing
    Once you are called and arrive in the courtroom itself, please do remember that first impressions count. Turn off your phone and be polite to your opponent and their legal representatives. You should dress smartly and stand when the Judge or Magistrates enter the room.
    If you are the Applicant in the proceedings, i.e. the person who made the application or your opponent doesn’t have legal representation, you would usually be expected to address the court first, explaining what application you have made and what you are seeking from the court.
    The other party are likely to say things that you may not agree with or support. Avoid interrupting and consider your reactions. This applies to both video or telephone hearings as the Judge or Magistrates are still likely to see you on video if you are pulling faces or expressing yourself.
    The court will allow you both time to speak to set out your position.  It is always good to be organised, have notes in front of you, set out what you want to say, and be as prepared as possible.
    You must not film or record any part of the proceedings as these are private law hearings. Similarly, no one else should be present in the room if you are dialling in remotely without the court’s express permission.
    After the court hearing, ensure that the other party has all the information they need from you before leaving the court building (or before you log off if being held remotely).  For example, they may be in the process of drafting an order and will require your approval before it is lodged with the court, so always worth checking.
    Get in touch
    If you would like any advice or assistance on preparing for family court, please contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our lawyers here. More

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    International Women’s Day: The rise of women in law

    The rise of women in law
    In honour of International Women’s Day, on the blog, we look at the rise of women in law and how the industry is changing to meet the modern lawyer’s needs, male or female.
    And no article being written today about the workplace could not touch on the impact of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic on how we all work and have embraced flexible and remote working. 
    Statistics released in June 2019  revealed that for the first time, the number of working solicitors in England and Wales had exceeded that of men – now 50.1% up from 43.4% in 2007. *
    So, is the age of the male-dominated law industry over?
    When Rachel Roberts, Yorkshire Regional Director at Stowe Family Law, graduated, she began her career with a strong, female mentor so believed that “anything seemed possible”. In fact, Rachel did not even consider her gender to

    “have an impact until I had children.”

    Having children and finding balance is a struggle many women in law face and is reflected in the statistics when we look at seniority in the industry, with women making up just 33% of partners in the UK (up from 31% in 2014). **
    Times have changed
    As the UK entered its first lockdown in March 2020, it is estimated that just under 50% of the country’s workforce shifted wholesale to working from home. (ONS data). 
    The Covid-19 pandemic has forced changed and dramatically accelerated shifts that were already underway in terms of increased working from home and flexible hours.
    What happens once the pandemic is over will vary from business to business. At Stowe, we believe our future solutions will need to prioritise flexibility and choice in terms of how both colleagues and clients interact with us and access services.  
    While this may be easier said than done, it is where our focus lies as we move forward in 2021. With over 75% of our team wanting to combine home and office-based working post-Covid-19, a hybrid model offering flexibility and choice for our colleagues is at the heart of how we will operate as a firm.

    “I am lucky to work for a firm that prioritises the well-being of its staff, and I work flexible hours so that I can still do the school run three days a week and attend school events (when we are not home-schooling)”, says Rachel. 

    Currently, over 50% of the leadership team and Managing Partners at Stowe work flexibly.
    But it is not just about the firm’s leaders,

    “I am a great believer in trusting your team to manage their diaries, workloads and working from home to allow them to meet their family commitments”, Rachel adds.

    At Stowe, over 30% of the workforce has a flexible working pattern, with countless more enjoying informal arrangements agreed with their line manager. 
    Rachel continues:

    “For me, it is about putting boundaries in place, so I will sometimes work at home in the evening, but for the large part,  my weekends are a precious time for us to spend as my family, and my work phone is switched off or out of sight.”

    Glass ceiling?
    In 2017, Lady Justice Heather Hallett spoke of her hopes that there was no glass ceiling and that the law had changed considerably for the better for women. A sentiment reflected in the fact that 66% of all partners at Stowe and 70% of lawyers are female.

    “Family law tends to attract more women, and it’s essential that we find ways to work around family commitments so that we retain our talent,” continues Rachel.
    “I have not encountered any obstacles to progressing up the career ladder because I am a woman, but I work at Stowe, and we have a large number of women in senior roles. I am not sure how much flexibility there is in larger law firms. I think, sadly, that too often the right things are said, but the requirements on a day to day basis make it impossible for women to advance in their careers and balance having a family.”

    Her advice to women considering entering law now is simple:

    “There is no limit to what you can achieve. The culture is changing, although, in big firms, it has a long way to go. So, get involved with organisations that care about retaining women in practice and focus on well-being.”
    “However, the whole sector now needs to change – men equally need to be able to have a healthy work-life balance and spend quality time with their friends and family.”

    Perhaps a positive outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic will be a continued uptake of flexible working, tailored for both women and men so they can enjoy a positive work-life balance. 
    Rachel is the Yorkshire Regional Director at Stowe Family Law. She is also an ambassador for Women in the Law, a non-profit women’s networking organisation designed to encourage, inspire and support the next generation of lawyers and women in business.
    Get in touch
    Find out more about a career in family law at Stowe Family Law. 
    *Law Society Annual Statistics Report 
    **Solicitors Regulation Authority More

  • in

    Why are domestic abusers still cross-examining their victims in the family court?

    On the 18th of July, the House of Commons debated the issue of progress on protecting victims of domestic abuse in the family courts. The debate was moved by Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley.
    In order to explain what the debate was about, I’m going to quote quite heavily from it, all quotes being from Mrs Phillips’ contribution.
    She began by explaining that:

    “There is often friction among specialist women’s organisations, the judiciary and lawyers with regard to issues to do with violence against women and girls, and the court system. Often the problem is that we do not all sing from the same hymn sheet. Every single one of the briefings, however, whether from the Magistrates’ Association, the Law Society or one of the specialist organisations makes at least one of three recommendations to Government. I will, therefore, focus on those specific recommendations and ask the Government to do something about them.”

    The first recommendation relates to perpetrators being able to cross-examine victims in the family court (I mentioned this here last Friday). Mrs Phillips did not mince her words on this. Without bothering to qualify the word ‘perpetrator’ with the word ‘alleged’, she said:

    “The idea that in this country—still, today, right now, in the courts—a perpetrator is cross-examining a victim of domestic abuse, perhaps in order to gain access to their children, is absolutely harrowing.”

    She explained of course that:

    “…the practice is a direct consequence of the changes to the legal aid regime made by the … Government”

    And that:

    “As a result, it is now the case that not only perpetrators but—we must not forget this—victims must act as litigants in person.”

    Why victims? Isn’t legal aid still available to them? Well, not always.
    She explained:

    “The Minister will no doubt respond by saying that the Government have made changes to legal aid in civil and family court cases involving domestic abuse, but every single day I am notified of at least one case of domestic abuse victims not being able to access legal aid in the family court.”

    And how many victims are subjected to this ‘secondary abuse’ in court?
    She had this answer:

    “Queen Mary University of London found that 24% of domestic violence victims who had gone through the family court system had been cross-examined by their perpetrator”

    Moving on, the second recommendation relates to practice direction 12J and the new practice direction 3AA. As to the former, Mrs Phillips explained that:

    “…practice direction 12J basically undoes the idea that someone who has been abusive has a right to see their children.”

    Again using robust language, she explained her position thus:

    “I wonder whether the Minister [i.e. Justice Minister Lucy Frazer] will join me in stressing the importance of this very simple message: “If you beat, coerce, humiliate and abuse your children’s mother, you waive your right to be their father until the moment the non-abusive parent decides otherwise.”

    She qualified this, however, by explaining:

    “I am not saying for one second that no one who commits domestic abuse should be able to see their children, but they should not have a right to demand to see them where the non-abusive parent does not wish those children—and the children do not wish—to be put in that situation.”

    As to PD3AA, she said:

    “New practice direction 3AA requires courts to consider whether those involved in family proceedings are vulnerable and, if so, whether that is likely to diminish their participation in proceedings or … the quality of their evidence.”

    She asked:

    “What are the Minister and the Department doing to review the use of practice direction 12J following its reaffirmation? It has been around for a long time. Can we conduct some sort of review of whether it is working or whether it needs updating, and of new practice direction 3AA? Both are key to ensuring that we can rebuild trust among victims of domestic abuse.”
    Lastly, the third recommendation relates to the issue of special measures for victims of domestic abuse in the family courts, which Mrs Phillips described as “woefully behind those in criminal justice proceedings.”

    In some cases, she said:

    “…the same woman may present at the same courthouse—literally the same building—and be offered different things. She would most likely be greeted at the door of the criminal court by an independent domestic violence adviser co-located in that courthouse, who would have arranged different times for her and would explain the system and help her find the special area for her in the court. She may then walk around the back of the building and go through a different door into the family court, where someone may say, “Oh, there’s Larry—you can just sit next to him, regardless of the years of abuse you have suffered.”

    She has an excellent point, and one that has often been raised (I recall scenarios of the above type when I was practising, and it seems little has changed in the nine years since I last entered a court building).
    She went on scathingly:

    “There is absolutely no excuse for the tardiness with which we have reacted to something we have known about for a long time. At least since I came to this place, we have been raising the need for separate rooms, separate arrival times and better evidence-giving opportunities, so that people do not just have a curtain around them but can give evidence from elsewhere via video link.”

    Quite.
    I will leave it there, but there is considerably more in the debate – the above just concentrates upon Mrs Phillips’ opening remarks, setting out the main points of the debate. If you want to read more, you can find the debate here, although I should give a word of warning: as you may have gathered from the above, it is very female-centric, with little mention of the fact that men are also victims of domestic abuse. More