A Week in family law: Online advice, domestic abuse and more

As I reported here on Monday, a new research project is to examine whether vulnerable people representing themselves in child court cases find themselves and their children put at risk by misinformed or biased online legal advice. Academics at Birmingham City University and the University of Leeds have launched the new project, which will explore the quality and types of advice handed out through legal advisors, including Mckenzie friends, online help forums and social media. The research will be carried out by English linguistics specialist Dr Tatiana Tkacukova, Senior Lecturer in English Language at Birmingham City University, and legal expert Hilary Sommerlad, Professor of Law and Justice at the University of Leeds. Professor Sommerlad said: “Access to the law is vital if people are to realise their rights and defend claims brought against them. Yet the law is alien and intimidating to most lay people. With the removal of legal aid from most private law matters more and more people are obliged to navigate the law’s highly complex procedures and deal with its esoteric language unaided, and often at points in their lives when they are at their most vulnerable. As a result many turn to online sources including ‘McKenzie Friends’, that is those who offer representation themselves on a voluntary basis or for a fee. As an unregulated source of legal aid, the quality of information and advice provided is inevitably highly variable. This research into the online activities of McKenzie Friends will therefore be extremely valuable in assessing the dangers and benefits of this form of advice.” It certainly will, and I look forward to seeing the results.

As I also reported here, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee has urged the Government to widen the scope of the Bill. Amongst other recommendations, the Committee recommends that the Bill include a statutory obligation upon local authorities in England and Wales to provide emergency refuge places, the establishment of a national register of serial stalkers and serial domestic violence perpetrators, and an end to single Universal Credit payments, which can make abuse victims more likely to stay with an abuser. Yvette Cooper MP, the Chair of the Committee, commented:

“Domestic abuse is one of the most dangerous and the most common crimes there is. Millions of people are affected each year, and two women a week die at the hands of a partner or ex. The Government is rightly proposing new legislation and a new strategy, but our inquiry found much stronger action is needed across the board. Shockingly many refuges are turning away 60% of their referrals due to lack of space. We urgently need more refuge places – provision should be a requirement on local authorities, backed by national ring fenced funding. Rightly the Government has recognised the serious problem of economic abuse. But Universal Credit is making it much harder for women to maintain financial independence or to leave abusive relationships and the Government’s insistence on a single household payment is a serious retrograde step. Separate family payments to ensure some independent income for the parent at home caring for children have been a feature of the welfare system ever since the introduction of Family Allowance for very good reason, and they are still part of the Scottish system today. If the Government is serious about tackling economic abuse, it needs to urgently rethink.”

These all seem like good ideas, and it will be interesting to see if the Government takes them up.

And finally in a slow week for family news, a new study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, an academic journal published in America on behalf of the National Council on Family Relations there, suggests that couples who live together before they get married are at greater risk of getting a divorce. This result contradicts the traditional view that pre-marriage cohabitation helps couples to ensure that they are compatible, before they tie the knot. The conclusion of the study was that whilst pre-marital cohabitation may reduce the incidence of divorce in the short-term, as couples who have cohabited have learned to adapt to each other, it has longer term costs for marital stability. So now you know.

Have a good weekend.

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