Legal aid cuts will mean more children miss seeing their dads, says Sheffield solicitor

Vanessa Fox, head of family law at hlw Keeble Hawson
Vanessa Fox, head of family law at hlw Keeble Hawson
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Changes in the law will lead to more children missing out on seeing their dads, warns a leading Sheffield family solicitor.

Vanessa Fox was commenting on a report that says that the Manor and Castle council ward has the highest number of lone parent families in England and Wales, at 75 per cent, where heads of the family are mainly women.

Cuts in Legal Aid are affecting couples going through divorce

Cuts in Legal Aid are affecting couples going through divorce

The report came from a think tank, the Centre for Social Justice. It claimed that some areas of the country with high levels of lone parent families are ‘men deserts’ with a lack of male role models because so few primary school teachers are men.

Vanessa is head of the family law team at hlw Keeble Hawson and the chair of South Yorkshire Resolution. She said: “In a lot of families it isn’t considered very convenient for dad to see the children after a divorce. It’s difficult for dads to negotiate properly with their exes. I see quite a few fathers where this is the case.

“It’s a real shame. The children are the ones who suffer.”

She added: “There are a lot of people who will say ‘it is my right to see my children’. The courts and family lawyers approach it on the basis of what the children need.”

She said that changes in legal aid that came in on April 1, limiting claims in divorce and child contact cases to a few exceptional circumstances, will have a big effect.

Vanessa said: “In this brave new dawn of no legal aid, there’s likely to be lots of families where dads don’t see their children. For the parent who has day-to-day care of the children it can be difficult to organise. They find it’s very inconvenient for the absent parent to see the children.”

In families where children are at risk from the absent parent, legal aid is often available,she pointed out.

Vanessa said she had seen a lot of cases where the absent parent, often the dad, gives up trying to see their children after a while because of disagreements with their ex-partner about issues around contact.

She also said that it can be hard to persuade teenagers to go to stay with the other parent, simply because they can’t afford to provide internet and other facilities they have at home.

Vanessa pointed out that there is still some legal aid available for mediation, which family courts are very keen on as the best way forward.

They want to avoid a situation where children are put under more stress by being caught in the middle of arguments between their parents because arrangements are difficult to make or get broken or changed at short notice.

Resolution, a association of family law solicitors that backs mediation solutions, also promotes collaborative law, where everyone sits around a table and parents have to listen and talk to each other.

In mediation, children are seen separately and asked what they want and this is then reported back to the parents.

Vanessa said: “I’ve arranged for that to happen. Parents find it very hard to hear. Older children sometimes say “I don’t want to see dad as often as I am doing, maybe once a fortnight’.”

Grandparents can often help in a situation where parents find it hard to talk to each other, said Vanessa. “Grandparents can facilitate access as long as they are comparatively impartial, which is incredibly hard, but some do manage to be even-handed with both parties.

“They are often the brokers that sort out the issue. I’ve had cases in the past where grandparents have done a deal about who is going to do the handover and who is going to be there in an emergency.”

Vanessa urged parents who are having difficulty with access to their children to seek help as soon as possible, rather than letting it drift on.

She said that most family solicitors will offer initial advice free or for a small amount.

She added that in the majority of situations it is relatively easy to resolve issues around children through lawyers or mediators. Often there are practical solutions to the situations which seem so difficult to the parents, of which the parents might not be aware.

Organisations helping lone parent families like Scoop Aid in Sheffield or Gingerbread can also give advice.

The Resolution website, http://www.resolution.org.uk, has some useful resources.