New Resolution Chair addresses National Conference

20 Apr 2018

Earlier today (20 April), Margaret Heathcote became National Chair of Resolution. Here is her inaugural address to the 30th National Conference, taking place in Bristol on 20-21 April.


Thank you Fiona, for that very warm welcome. And thanks to you and your colleagues for a warm welcome to Bristol.

Strength of membership

There is a reason why we hold National Conference in a different place each year. It is not just to make it easier for members in different parts of the country to come to conference at least once.

It is because our members, and our regions, are the lifeblood of Resolution. As you’ll see and hear over the next couple of days, we achieve a great deal as a national organisation. But for many members, the main point of contact with Resolution is through their region.

In my last two years as Vice-Chair, I’ve also chaired our Regional Liaison Committee, hearing directly from regional Chairs about the great work members are doing across the country.

I’m proud of our regions and what they achieve.

And I’m even prouder to be addressing you for the first time as National Chair, a position I’ve held for almost 5 hours now.

Unlike my predecessor, I can predict with absolute confidence that I won’t be returning for a second stint later in my career.

The fact that Nigel did so is a testament to his commitment to Resolution. His energy, passion and sheer determination to change the face of family law has been truly inspiring.

For an incoming chair, it’s also more than a little intimidating.

Nigel, we’ll be saying more at dinner tonight, but I’d like us all to take a moment and thank you for all you’ve done for Resolution – not just over the last two years, but throughout your entire career.

It’s been a pleasure to work with Nigel these last few years and to work with a National Committee that shares his commitment to all things Resolution.

We’re very lucky to have so many dedicated people who collectively give over 3,000 hours of their time to this organisation.

Sometimes, of course, the day job kicks in or other areas of life have to take priority, even over our commitment to Resolution.

And so, as ever at this time of year, there are sadly some NC members to whom we must say goodbye. Daniel Bennett, Karen Taylor and Karin Walker have stood down from NC over the last year, and Grant Cameron has chosen not to seek re-election. Would you please join me in showing your appreciation for Daniel, Karen, Karin and Grant.

Also at this time of year, we have an election, to determine who serves on our National Committee.

We have 5 new members of NC as of this morning, together with Elspeth Thomson who was successfully re-elected. They are Melanie Bataillard-Samuel; Claire Blakemore; Caroline Elliot; Joanne Radcliffe; and Farhana Shahzad. I look forward to working with each and every one of you, and I know you’ll all make a fantastic contribution to the work we’ll do together.

NC can’t do this work alone of course, and we’re lucky to have such a dedicated, talented, and universally good-looking professional staff team who share our members’ commitment to building a better family justice system.

Led by our Chief Executive Colin Jones, the sheer amount that they do is phenomenal:

providing resources, drafting briefings, organising events and training, masterminding media coverage, dealing with calls from the public, helping our members – to name but a few.

Some members I’ve spoken to think we have hundreds of staff to do all the things we do – the reality is there are just twenty, and I’d like you to join with me in showing our appreciation for their work and commitment to Resolution.

Working with our staff team, and through our various committees and working groups, there is much we have achieved, and of which we can all be proud.

· We’ve developed 18 Good Practice Guides, which every member should keep close by – they effectively form the manual on how to live and breathe the Code of Practice.

· We now have over 1,300 accredited specialists, and over 100 members have already applied this year.

· We’ve launched pioneering new services to help members in their day to day work, such as our online Precedents for Consent Orders and Cohabitation Agreements.

· And, I’m proud to announce today, that we are extending this to include the President’s standard financial orders. Available free of charge to all Resolution members, they will enable you to create, edit, save and export orders, all with helpful footnotes developed by other Resolution members.

We are increasingly working with other and wider professional groups to progress and improve the delivery of family law. For example:

· We have been playing a key role in driving the work of The Pensions Advisory Group on which a number of our members sit along with judges, barristers, financial experts, academics and actuaries reviewing the treatment of pensions on divorce. They’ll be asking members to feed into their work via a survey soon, so do keep an eye out for that.

· We’re working with CILEx to ensure more Legal Executives know about the benefits of Resolution membership. Something I’m sure will be greatly helped by your new Vice-Chair, Juliet Harvey, who is the first Chartered Legal Executive to hold this position.

· And, with the Family Law Bar Association, and the International Academy of Family Lawyers, we’ve produced a joint position paper, setting out what we think the family law landscape should look like post-Brexit, which has been quoted extensively in Parliament and beyond.

Our members are experts, and we should be proud of that fact. We can – and should – all be proud of what we’ve delivered for members. By we, I include every one of you in this room, because you all have a role to play.

Whether it’s helping your regional committee put on training events; getting involved with our campaigns by writing to your local paper; or simply using our Good Practice Guides to promote the Code in your day to day work - we cannot do what we do without you.

Campaigning

Nowhere was this more evident than in our most recent awareness week, where up and down the country you wrote to your Members of Parliament, shared our video, wrote blogs, tweeted, appeared on local radio – all helping to raise awareness of the wholly inadequate rights on separation for cohabiting couples. As the result of one member’s meeting with their MP, a Parliamentary motion was raised calling for change, recognising our work.

We were one of the most-read stories on the BBC news website that week, fighting off stiff competition from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and had extensive coverage in newspapers and on the airwaves. Nigel even debated the issue on the Moral Maze on Radio 4 – and emerged unscathed!

I should at this moment pay tribute to the Chair of our cohabitation committee, Graeme Fraser, whose boundless enthusiasm for the cause helped drive this issue forward.

The goal was to raise awareness, and we certainly did that, exceeding many of our expectations.

And Resolution is making a difference in other areas of family law.

Earlier this year, the evidence gateway for victims of domestic abuse applying for legal aid was widened. This was due in part to the relentless lobbying by our legal aid and domestic abuse committees, chaired by Elspeth Thomson, Emma Cordock, Phillip Scott and Nick Longford. Because of their work, more people are now able to access legal advice, helping them to escape abusive relationships.

I am not the first Chair to stand before you and talk about the devastating impact of the cuts to legal aid. And, sadly, I won’t be the last.

We have heard that the government is finally carrying out its long-awaited review of the effects of LASPO.

I don’t want to pre-empt the result, but I’m not exactly holding my breath for a massive injection of funding.

Nevertheless, we are contributing to the review, making sure our members’ voices are heard and their first-hand experience is acknowledged.

Resolution will continue to speak truth to power, to stand up for vulnerable people and do what we can to protect access to justice.

Then, of course, there is no fault divorce. I don’t think anyone, inside or outside of our organisation, has done more personally to bang the drum for divorce reform than Nigel.

And during his time as Chair we have come so close. Far more people are talking about this issue than they were two years ago. MPs, Peers, Senior judges, charities, other legal organisations – there is overwhelming support for our call for change.

I think Tolstoy was right when he said that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.

It is ridiculous that, in the twenty-first century, Mrs Owens has had to go to the highest court in the land in order to try and get her divorce, and to prove how unhappy being in a loveless marriage makes her.

We’ll be there next month, showing our support for Mrs Owens as interveners. We are immensely grateful to James Turner QC and Deepak Nagpal of 1 King’s Bench Walk for their pro bono work for us on this.

Nigel – rest assured, I will continue your hard work during both your terms as Chair to end the blame game.

We will make no fault the default.

Of course, we’re about to hear from someone who is also very interested in this issue. I don’t expect her to comment too much on the individual case, for obvious reasons, but we are absolutely delighted to have Lady Hale with us today as our keynote speaker.

Actually, Lady Hale gave the keynote address at our first national conference, back in 1989. We’ve all come a long way since then.

And I hope your new role won’t restrict youtoomuch in what you’re able to say – either today or in the future.

Incidentally, I have seen some people wearing t-shirts bearing your image. For those of you who don’t know, these have been produced by a brilliant organisation, Billable Hour, raising money for charity.

As well as being for a good cause, I think this is a sign of how respected you are throughout the legal community, and how proud we are to have a family judge presiding over the Supreme Court, and – coincidentally - the first female President.

I’m sure you will continue to be an inspiration to many in this room and beyond.

John Cornwell Foundation

Speaking of charities, I don’t know what people’s plans are for Sunday morning. But you could do worse than watch the London Marathon, particularly as we have one of our members running in it, Sarah Pugh, for our very own charitable arm, the John Cornwell Foundation, which supports separating families.

You can support Sarah by making a donation either on her Gofundme page, or look out for the purple buckets which are doing the rounds during conference.

Personal journey

The charity is named after John, who was an inspiration to me when I trained with him, many moons ago.

When I qualified, with John as my principal, of course I joined Resolution – why wouldn’t I? I simply assumed then that everyone practiced like him – calling people by their first names, speaking on the phone rather than writing long letters, smoking pipes in the morning, then onto cigars and cigarettes as the day went on.

At around that time, the first incarnation of YRes had just emerged, for London solicitors under 35. As I was 34, I didn’t feel particularly “young”, and so I didn’t get involved but a couple of years later plunged straight into my local regional committee.

Since then, like many of you, I have made life-long friends through Resolution, and even met my husband at a Resolution event – a lecture on Child Abduction. How romantic!

I have never for a moment doubted that the principals that John, with others, set out in that first Code of Practice were sound, and should dictate the way in which family law is practiced. Now, as I’m part of what’s known – I think affectionately – as VRes, or Vintage Res, I know that John would be proud of how far we’ve come.

And nothing makes me prouder than seeing people at the start of their career, talking about joining Resolution as being “a no-brainer.”

YRes

But I also have a message for YRes members here and across the country. And I want to be very clear, because this is very important.

You are the future of this organisation, and the future of family law.

Don’t think that, because you’re active in YRes, that’s the only way in which you can be active in the wider organisation.

Don’t let the YRes label inadvertently create a glass ceiling for you or for anyone else.

We need you – not just to replace Vintage Res who won’t be around forever – but to bring fresh ideas, a new perspective.

So yes, embrace the YRes network. Get involved, use the networks, build your skills. But always remember, that those towards the end of their careers have just as much to learn from you as you have from them.

One example is the stunning insight provided by Sarah Green at last year’s DR Conference which really made people there think differently. She said on behalf of YRes:

“We see the family law of the future as DR-focused, but without the labels – rather, having a variety of skills which we can use to fit a particular client’s family situation, to maximum effect. Wherever we practice…, we need the right skills to do the job, and to do it well.”

DR

Sarah is absolutely right – and we all need to ensure we’re supporting junior practitioners.

Those of you who know me know I don’t come from what you’d call a “Dispute Resolution” background, although I have been resolving disputes - one way or another - for some time now!

Even though I don’t practice as a mediator or an arbitrator, I know how successful these processes can be, and when they can work best.

However, just as a doctor focuses on prescribing the right medicine, we all advise clients day in day out on what the right way forward is for them and their specific needs. This is a core part of our Code, but if you promote one process above all others, you may be doing your clients a disservice.

My worry now is, in the rush to be at the cutting edge, some of the skills and techniques that don’t fall naturally into the DR camp – including solicitor negotiation, and yes, even litigation – aren’t seen as part of the solution we can offer, or are somehow less family-focussed.

For some areas of practice, especially in the public law arena, litigation is the only option, but that does not mean that it cannot be conducted within the Code.

It’s about finding the right approach for our clients, and we must do away with any sense of hierarchy between the options available.

So as some food for thought over the next couple of days, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could move on from debating the virtues of – and I’m over-simplifying here – DR vs Court.

I would love to see us all talking more about ‘options.’

Our clients want - and need - options. They want informed advice, both legal and practical. They want us to help them find the right way – a better way.

And, if anyone from government is listening, this early, informed advice helps reduce conflict. Less conflict will inevitably reduce the burden on our over-stretched courts, as well as bringing down costs elsewhere.

Inclusivity

Just as I’m proud of the work we’ve done to develop these different options, I’m also proud of the range of specialisms offered by the professionals within our membership.

We’ve evolved from John’s group of pioneers into an organisation representing thousands of practitioners from across the family justice arena.

The role of the family lawyer has changed beyond recognition during my time, as has the availability of specialist advice on a wide range of issues.

We might need to take advice from a barrister, bring in a mediator, talk to a financial adviser, recommend a family therapist – all in the interests of giving our clients the best possible service. How much better it must be to work with a fellow professional who has shown their commitment to the Resolution Code by becoming a member of this organisation?

That’s why we want to promote our Code far and wide, and why we revised it last year to ensure it can apply to a broader range of professionals working in this arena.

So that’s my pledge to you. As your Chair, I will stand up for all our members.

To make sure you all have a voice in the organisation.

And to ensure that you all have the support youneed to keep doing the amazing things you do.

Thank you, and enjoy the rest of the conference.