Resolution. First for family law [Logo]

Press release

National Conference 2019: National Chair Margaret Heathcote's speech

05 Apr 2019

Thank you Tricia, and thank you for once again doing such a stellar job holding the reins on this year’s Conference.

I must also thank you and your committee for such a warm welcome to Manchester. And, as you set out in your introduction this morning, there’s a lot happening in this part of the world, family law and otherwise.

Thank you also to Sir Andrew for agreeing to address us here today. I know everyone here is looking forward to what you have to say.

One of the good things about volunteering, in contrast to everyday practice, is that you don’t have to contend with the joy that is the annual appraisal.

That is, of course, until you become the chair of Resolution. When, instead of your appraisal being in a quiet room with just your line manager, it takes place in a packed hotel ballroom with hundreds of the brightest and best in family law eyeballing you.

It’s also slightly more of a one-way conversation than good appraisals should be.

With this in mind, in any appraisal it’s important to highlight what has gone well over the past 12 months, where we must strive for improvement and what our goals are for the future.

What we achieved last year

I’m happy to report, there’s plenty to say about what we, as an organisation, have achieved since I first stood before you as your National Chair in Bristol last year.

We’ve had one or two significant campaigning successes – of which more later.

We’ve launched more tools to help you in your work, including:

· Our guidance note on first directions appointments

· Our safeguarding guidance note – these are both part of our suite of nearly thirty Good Practice Guides and Guidance Notes

· Our mediation handbook, written by Angela Lake-Carroll, who has literally written the book on all things mediation

· New online resources, including our online parenting plans, cohabitation agreements, and standard financial remedy orders.

These are to name but a few of the resources we’ve developed – by members, for members, to support the vital work you do.

We’ve welcomed over 650 new members to our ranks.

And we’ve moved into a new home, having our very own offices, with our name above the door, for the first time, including a new training venue, which I know many of you have already visited.

The reason NC is able to make these decisions, to invest in our future, in yourfuture, is because of the strong financial position we are now in. For those of you who weren’t at this morning’s AGM, you’ll have missed our Treasurer Simon Blain’s presentation on our annual accounts.

You might not be aware that, behind the numbers, is a story of how we have invested in the medium to long term in initiatives to grow our income, both from membership subscriptions and from products we sell, like training, in order to secure our financial future. We do not exist to make money, we don’t sit around on piles of cash – put simply, the more resources we have, the more we can deliver for members. The examples I gave earlier are testament to that.

This means that, in an environment where many membership and professional bodies are struggling, I’m proud to report that Resolution’s future looks more rosy than ever before.

The last year, of course, has not been without its challenges.

Legal aid cuts continue to take their toll – both in terms of the ability of the public to access legal aid, and the way in which the existing scheme is operating. Our Legal Aid committee continues to support those working in this area, and those of you attending the legal aid workshop will no doubt leave with a renewed appreciation of the expertise and hard work that goes on there.

The lack of legal aid continues to fuel the explosion in the numbers of Litigants in Person dealing with the family court system, a system that’s already creaking at the seams, and I suspect most of us in this room have direct experience of the difficulties this can cause – for practitioners, for the judiciary, and for the individuals themselves.

Coupled with a wider political system that’s paralysed by Brexit – which is itself creating massive uncertainty within family law – and you have a perfect storm of reduced funding, increased pressure on services, and parliamentary inertia which all combine to frustrate professionals and the public alike.

Given the weight and number of the challenges our profession currently faces, it would be easy for us as an organisation to take a negative approach. To complain and object. To throw our collective hands in the air and exclaim, “what a terrible situation we’re in.”

That’s not the approach we choose to take.

No, in the face of these challenges, we choose to ask “how can we make this better?” Better for our members, better for the people our members support, better for the family justice system as a whole.

You only have to look at our Annual Report – published today and available in your conference packs – to see how much we achieved last year, and the benefits of this approach.

Support for members and the public

We look for solutions, we look for new ways of doing things, we support our members to deal with these changes – and Brexit is a perfect example of this.

As I speak we’re still not entirely sure how Brexit will pan out. But there is one thing we are sure of, and that is the support provided to members by Daniel Eames, Eleri Jones, and other members of the Brexit Working Party has been first class.

Guidance notes, some produced jointly with the Law Society, briefings, email updates – all have been squarely aimed at tackling Brexit and its possible consequences head on and letting members know what they’ll need to do in the event of no deal.

If anybody is in need of any further insight into what they need to do, you could do far worse than listen to the recording of the recent roundtable discussion, held at our new offices, which could easily have the title, “Everything you wanted to know about Brexit and Family Law but were terrified to ask.”

It is impossible to overstate the amount of hard work and intellectual heavy lifting that has taken place beyond the scenes. But I think we should pause and thank those involved in doing so.

On litigants in person, again, we’re not simply accepting the cards we’ve been dealt. We’re working with organisations like Law for Life, an award-winning charity, on a new project to support users of their online service, Advicenow, with a blend of high-quality information and affordable legal advice from a panel of Resolution members.

With initiatives like this and the Family Law Panel run by OnlyMums and OnlyDads, not only are we supporting those who’ve been left to fend for themselves, we’re also finding new ways to connect our members with the support that is being developed in order to plug the gap.

On court reform, we’re taking proactive steps to ensure the views of our members are heard. We’re running regular surveys to get direct feedback from you at the coalface. We’re meeting frequently with court user groups and even the Chief Executive of HMCTS. And, last year, the Resolution Duracell Bunny that is Jo Edwards gave evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee, based on the findings of one of those surveys, taking your concerns and your experiences of the family courts to MPs.

Campaigning success

Our campaigning in other areas has reached new heights over the last 12 months.

Building on the success of our cohabitation awareness week, our work to highlight the lack of legal rights for unmarried couples has continued, with Graeme Fraser and the cohabitation committee securing regular mentions in Parliament and in the media for our work in this area.

By the way, as if they haven’t got enough to do, the committee – with help from others who’ve given their time for free - have been beavering away at the second edition of the Cohabitation Claims book, coming soon to a member bulletin near you…

Change in this area may not happen overnight, but when it does, you should look back at the work of Graeme and others as the originators of reform.

No Fault Divorce

If you need any proof of the results long-term campaigning can bring, then look no further than no fault divorce. Last year I stood before you and pledged to you, and to Nigel Shepherd, our outgoing chair, that we will make no fault the default.

Twelve months later, I’m pleased to say, we’re a huge step closer to making that a reality, and I am happy to take all the credit.

With the Lord Chancellor launching a consultation last year, and the positive language around it, we are one teeny, tiny Parliamentary Bill away from a significant change that will help tens of thousands of divorcing couples each year avoid unnecessary conflict and find a better way to separate.

Many have commented on the planned reform, and yes, those across the profession have joined our call for change over the years. But be in no doubt, from Nigel’s work on the 1996 Family Law Act, right through to Jo Edwards and I handing in Resolution’s response to the consultation paper in November last year, there’s one organisation that has consistently and prominently campaigned for change – and it’s the one that’s meeting here in Manchester today.

Whether it’s coming to our Lobby Day in Westminster three years ago, standing outside Parliament last May, meeting with or writing to your local MP, or getting coverage in your local newspaper, you can all be very proud of the role you’ve played in persuading government and others of the need for change.

We are not over the finish line yet, of course, and history has some sobering warnings for those who assume otherwise. Politics is a fickle business, and as I’ve just mentioned, many important reforms are being held up while Parliament tries to find a way out of the mess we find ourselves in.

So my message today to government is very simple. There are many weighty issues you’re dealing with at the moment, not least trying to negotiate your own non-confrontational divorce from the EU. But if you’re separating, and you’re faced with having to make unnecessary and unhelpful accusations against your ex on the divorce petition, there is nothing more important than this reform in the law.

Lord Chancellor: make this change happen, and make it happen now.

National Committee and changing membership

During the time we’ve been campaigning for no fault divorce, we’ve seen many members join National Committee, and others move on. With the annual elections that have just taken place, this year is no exception.

I’m proud to announce that joining NC this year are Alison Bull, fittingly as we’re in Manchester, and Grant Cameron. They join Zoe Fleetwood, Jo Edwards, Dave Emmerson and Sarah Green, who were successfully re-elected.

It is fantastic to have such a hotly contested election – an unfortunate side-effect of this, however, is that not everybody can be successful, and I’d like to thank all the members who put their heads above the parapet and stand, and wish them the very best of luck should they choose to stand again.

We also have to say goodbye to one long-standing member of NC, Kim Fellowes, who’s decided to stand down after twelve years’ service. Over the years Kim has been a champion of all things related to child support, and her battles with the CSA and its successors are the stuff of legend. Kim can’t be with us today, but please do join with me in thanking her for her years of hard work on behalf of Resolution.

In fact I’d like to thank allmy colleagues on National Committee. The achievements I’ve outlined do not happen by accident, and under their stewardship, Resolution is achieving more for its members than ever before.

And, in Juliet Harvey, you could not ask for a better vice-chair. As is customary, Juliet will take over as Chair of Resolution this time next year, and will have the honour of making her inaugural speech to you all. I’m really proud to say that she will do so as the first Chartered Legal Executive to have ever held this position, and will continue to fly the flag for allmembers of the family justice profession.

National Committee is supported by a strong Regional Liaison Committee, and, representing those starting out in family law, our wonderful YRes Committee. Chaired by David Lister – who also sits on NC, ensuring YRes has a voice there – they have done some phenomenal work, and are currently organising their second YRes conference, being held on 3rdOctober. I know the whole committee are delighted that Sir Andrew, you’ll be addressing them at their conference as well.

Our National Committee elections have also seen another significant first. In Tom Farrell, we had our first financial adviser standing for NC.

This is the natural progression of the decision we took last year, following extensive member consultation, to extend full membership of Resolution to a wider group of family professionals, and to welcome others to the membership as a whole.

I know there are some out there who are uncomfortable with this. I know when the proposals for change were first mooted, I myself was initially sceptical. But the world of family law, of family justice, of supporting families in dispute, is changing beyond recognition. We need to change with it.

This is big, scary stuff – but it’s also very real. And if we are to support our members – all members – and the families you help – we as an organisation need to make sure we are working with you to help you deal with this change.

This does not mean we are moving away from our roots. Far from it. The values that John Cornwell espoused when he formed Resolution in 1983 are still the values we hold dear today.

Future of Dispute Resolution

John also went on to help found the Family Mediators’ Association. I dare say that given the changed and changing face of our work and our organisation, if he were starting now, or even 10 years ago, he would not see the need for two separate organisations. Indeed, it is telling that Resolution has over 700 mediators in its ranks.

The vast majority of those mediators are also solicitors, collaborative practitioners, or arbitrators.

They also indulge in the odd spot of negotiation and, when necessary, litigation, even if it may be conducted by a colleague.

We’re proud to work with the FMA, NFM, and other partners in the family mediation community. But there is a hard reality that we, and they, need to face. Mediation is a powerful and effective tool. And mediators are powerful and effective advocates for its benefits. However, it is not the only one we have.

As government has found – to its cost - to promote and support one form of dispute resolution to the exclusion of all others, is to deny families in crisis access to a whole host of other techniques that may help them reach agreement more quickly, more cost effectively, and with less reliance on the court.

As I said last year, we need to move away from talking about Dispute Resolution as a separate discipline, and talk more about the importance of resolving disputes.

I’m not saying that, if you don’t yet have these skills, you are providing poor support to families. And I say this as someone who’s been litigating, negotiating and resolving disputes my whole professional career.

But we all need to be able to at least understand and articulate how these processes work, and for whom they might work best.

That’s where Resolution membership is absolutely vital – you’re part of a network of professionals with a range of different skills. Not only can you bring them on board to help your client, but by sharing best practice and having access to the specialised training we offer, you build your own understanding and your own skills base.

We need to think about skills rather than processes. Let’s not define ourselves by the process we practice, but by the fact we’re all signed up to a Code of Practice that commits us to finding the best way to help people.

This is a topic our DR committee, chaired by Dave Emmerson, is tackling head on, and they are working closely with National Committee to look at different ways we can square this circle, and put our Code at the very heart of the future of support for separating families.

Input from you, our members, is absolutely fundamental to everything we do. From sitting on National Committee to providing feedback through one of our surveys – and, by the way, we’ll soon be launching our latest all-member survey, so watch out for that later this month – this is yourorganisation.

We cannot do everything that we do without you. It’s impossible to name-check all of you who have made a contribution to Resolution’s work over the years, but you all know who you are, and you all deserve our thanks.

It is truly remarkable the amount of time people give to Resolution. Even more so when you look at the way family law practice has changed over the years, and just how little additional time is available.

These are unprecedented times, and be in no doubt, we do not underestimate how challenging this environment is for our members.

Conclusion

This will be my last speech to National Conference as your national chair. Unlike Nigel, I will definitely notbe returning in twenty years’ time.

But, like those before me, and like Juliet and others who will come after me, I am proud to have played a role in shaping the future of this wonderful organisation which has done so much for so many.

I will dedicate my remaining time as Chair to ensuring we continue to support allour members, staying true to our roots and with a close eye on the future.

With your support, we will continue to view the future with optimism.

We will deal with the challenges, and make the most of the opportunities, and fulfil John’s vision of a better family justice system for all.

And we will do it together.

Thank you, and enjoy the rest of conference.