A long time ago, in a world not so far away...

John Bolch

John Bolch

on Feb 17, 2023

Family Law blogger John Bolch invokes Star Wars and 'A New Hope' to discuss a shocking bribe, the Children Act and whether continuation of a pilot scheme could improve family court operations and hearings for children.

Once, long ago (think around about the time when the original trilogy of Star Wars films was still fresh in the memory, before the series was artlessly resurrected), I was asked by a client if I could give a ‘backhander’ to the judge, to persuade them to grant him custody of his children.

Needless to say, I explained that that was not how things worked. My client was most disappointed.

It also will come as no surprise that the court subsequently found that the children’s welfare would be best served by them living with their mother.

I recount this little story not as any criticism of my long-former client, but as an indication of how far we have come in the nearly forty years that have passed since those events.

And I am not referring to the bribing of the judiciary. Not only has the terminology changed (as we will see, more than once), but so too has the mind-set.

At least one would hope.

Children are no longer seen as the property of parents, a prize to be awarded to them by the courts. Indeed, the whole concept of the ‘rights of the parent’ has been consigned to history.

So how did these changes come about, and what further changes does the future hold?

The Children Act: A New Hope..

The revolution came with the passing of the Children Act in 1989.

The Act swept away the whole idea of ‘parental rights’, replacing it with ‘parental responsibilities’, emphasising that parents have duties towards their children, rather than rights over them.

To confirm this new emphasis the Act did away with the age-old concept of child ‘custody’ (or at least it attempted to do so - sadly we still regularly come across the term), replacing it initially with the term ‘residence’. And what was ‘access’, a term that seemed to emphasise the lesser status of the non-resident parent, was replaced with the term ‘contact’.

And it was subsequently realised that ‘residence’ similarly connotes a greater status for the parent with whom the child lives. Accordingly, in 2014 residence and contact orders were replaced with ‘child arrangements orders’, regulating arrangements relating to with whom a child is to live, spend time or otherwise have contact, and when a child is to live, spend time or otherwise have contact with any person.

All of this may not sound like that much now (perhaps we have just become so used to it), but the Children Act really did revolutionise the approach that the law took to the parent/child relationship, and how parental disputes should be resolved.

But the story does not of course end there…

Always in motion is the future..

When Yoda uttered those wise words in The Empire Strikes Back he could have been referring to family law (although I suspect he actually wasn’t), where nothing seems to stay the same for long, as new ideas attempt to improve upon what has gone before.

And so it is with the family justice system’s approach to the resolution of children disputes: never be satisfied, never be complacent, and never stand still. The latest idea calls for the adoption of a new approach to dealing with disputes between parents over arrangements for their children.

Improving information sharing between agencies...

The approach involves new ‘Pathfinder’ courts (I believe there may be another Star Wars reference there, but it’s probably too obscure), which will (amongst other things):

  • improve information sharing between agencies such as the police, local authorities and the courts encourage proceedings to be less adversarial
  • boost the voice of children at every stage of the process
  • carry out a review between three months and a year after a ruling is made
  • ensure decisions made are working well

Pilots for the new Pathfinder Courts were launched early last year at family courts in North Wales and Dorset. The pilots will run for up to two years before a full evaluation. If successful, they may be rolled out across England and Wales, marking A New Beginning for family justice in the two countries.

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Video credit: Adis Resic -

John Bolch

John Bolch

John Bolch is well-known as one of the UK’s leading family law bloggers. He gave up practising in 2009 and now works freelance as a writer on family law matters.

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