Once upon a time, many years ago a colleague handed me a new file and told me that he had asked the client whose name was on the front to contact me. I opened it and read my colleague’s initial and detailed attendance note.
“Attended Mrs X, in a small interview room, together with her 4 children, the family dog, a push chair and 4 balloons,” it began.
It finished with: “The appointment concluded by agreement when all the balloons burst, the dog wrapped its lead around the pushchair barking madly and one child started to wail. It was agreed that Mrs X would return next week but would see my colleague, Miss Middleton.”
Although and in anticipation I reserved a large interview room for my appointment with Mrs X, she came alone and I never did meet any of her children (with or without balloons and a dog) in what turned out to be a fairly straight forward divorce. In fairness and although the law makes it clear that the welfare and interests of a child are paramount in all family proceedings, in all my years of practice it was rare to actually meet the children involved.
However, even in amicable divorces, as my mediation and collaborative training emphasised, the children are still affected, carrying the scars of the family break up for far more years than was initially thought. The legal process has played lip-service only to the interests of the children being of concern within an undefended divorce when there is no other dispute, and the court has struggled to play any effective part in arrangements being made within the family. During my career, Section 41 Appointments (as they were known), where parties had to attend before a Judge to discuss the arrangement for their children, were abolished and latterly, at the time I was retiring, the requirement that a separate Statement describing those arrangements be filed was withdrawn.
Whilst mediation and collaborative practice are both ideal environments for discussing the plan to separate and the steps to be taken to minimise its effect upon the children, even there the children themselves rarely have a voice. For that reason it was great to hear about the launch of the new Kids in the Middle website which is working in partnership with Only Mums and Only Dads and is supported by a group of family lawyers and mediators.
It has been set up in response to the recent Government commissioned report “Voice of the Child” which recognised that “whilst there has been considerable focus in recent years on the provision of better information and support services for separating parents there has been little parallel investment in information and support for children and young people."
The site currently provides support for 11-18 year olds and enables young people to hear the stories of their peers and provides links to discussion boards and on-line help.