Too many feuding parents 'rely' on court, says minister
Last year there were 45,000 private law cases involving children in England
Too many parents fighting over child custody use the courts as their first option to resolve the dispute, Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly has said.
He called on estranged parents to make greater use of independent mediation to resolve their differences.
There were nearly 45,000 child custody cases in England and Wales last year, costing the legal aid system £143m.
The minister, who has responsibility for courts in England and Wales, says the situation needs to change.
Mr Djanoglysays too many cases are ending up before judges.
"Too often people in family breakdown situations use court as a first answer when they shouldn't," he said.
"Often it's dealing with contact with children or intimate personal relationships that really shouldn't be going before the courts. We are determined to look at this."
He questions whether it's right that the taxpayer has to "foot the bill" for the courts process in non-violent cases simply because parents won't speak to each other.
The number of cases ending up in court involving parents in dispute over custody or access to their children has been rising over recent years.
Last year, nearly 45,000 private law cases involving children were heard in the courts in England.
Many parents can qualify for means-tested legal aid to help fight their case.
More than £143m of public money was spent on such cases last year, according to the Legal Services Commission which is responsible for legal aid in England and Wales.
Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly wants fewer disputes going to court
A review into the system for delivering legal aid is due to publish its conclusions in the next few weeks.
Mr Djanogly wants more disputes settled using out-of-court mediation, where parents negotiate through an independent third party.
"Unfortunately, though, too few people are taking it up," he said.
"There isn't enough knowledge within the courts system and, I have to say, with lawyers as to the benefits of mediation."
A similar call is being made by Cafcass, the organisation that advises the English courts in cases involving children.
It wants greater use of a relatively new innovation in which a judge orders parents to attend a Parenting Information Programme (PIP) early on in the courts process.
You almost think 'maybe it would be better for my daughters if I just walked away'
The programme involves a two-part course, attended separately by the estranged parents, in which they learn how to put their children at the centre of the dispute and try to make more amicable arrangements.
Cafcass Chief Executive Anthony Douglas said: "For the first time parents are systematically asked to focus on their children, not themselves."
"It really is not justifiable for warring parents to be using courts if they haven't tried everything to settle and communicate."
Mediation and PIPs can only be considered as an alternative to the courts when there are no concerns over domestic abuse or the safety of children.
One father ordered to attend a PIP course said he found it beneficial, but regretted it not being available earlier in his dispute with his partner.
"I was in a desperate situation. I wanted to see my daughters," he said, explaining why he had instigated the courts process after 'contact was broken'.
He says he had been "battling" in the courts for a year and a half to obtain access to his children.
After one court hearing that was cancelled because of heavy snow before Christmas, he says he nearly gave up hope.
Judge Alison Raeside says PIP courses are a "very useful tool"
"I virtually left the place in tears," he said.
"I was looking forward for Christmas. Nothing happened.
"I thought 'my god, what is the point'. You almost think 'maybe it would be better for my daughters if I just walked away'."
The father, who can't be identified for legal reasons, says the PIP course has allowed him to focus on his children and has helped in the dispute with his former partner.
Cafcass says more than 2,400 people attended parenting courses between April and July this year.
District judge at Guildford County Court, Alison Raeside, is one of a number of judges who have ordered parents to go on PIP courses.
She says they are a "very useful tool" in the judicial armour to try to resolve disputes over children between parents.
"The parenting information programme enables them to focus on the children, to focus on the position of the other parent," she said.
"Very often some of the major issues have been resolved, because the parents have focused more on their children's needs and less on the battle between the two of them."
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