Most people who get married plan their wedding very carefully, plotting out every last detail from seating plans to thank you cards. Few of us plan for these relationships to end, yet sadly, 42% of marriages, and a significant proportion of cohabiting relationships, break down. January in particular is make or break time for many couples with Relate experiencing an increase in the number of people contacting us for relationship support following a difficult Christmas together.
While most families manage separation by themselves without negative long-term consequences, for a minority of people the hurt, anger and emotional turmoil can lead to high levels of conflict which can have a damaging impact on children. But this doesn't have to be the case - there are important steps which separating parents can take to prevent harm to children. So it's surely right to do everything we can to make it easy for families to access the support they need to ensure family relationships before, during, and after separation are as collaborative and harmonious as possible and to provide the positive, nurturing environments that children need. In practice this means joining up the support available for separating and separated families, and making it as easy as possible for families to sort things out for themselves, away from the high conflict and costly environments of the courts and child maintenance systems.
Of course there are also economic drivers for this change. In an era of continuing austerity, government needs to reduce demands on costly statutory services, including the Child Maintenance System and the family courts. Unfortunately in the wake of the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act which withdrew Legal Aid from most of private family law, we've seen a fall in the uptake of publicly-funded mediation. We've also seen mediation cases becoming more complex, as court has become a less accessible route.
Relate's new report, Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions, highlights even further the need for an improved support system for separating families. The report finds that currently, families lack an obvious place to go for information and support regarding relationship problems. There are many high quality providers and practitioners out there, but often they are not talking to one another or signposting effectively. This makes the system unnecessarily complex for families to navigate. To add to this, children and young people's voices are often absent.
Relate is making 13 recommendations for how we could move towards a more joined-up system, including a single point of access for support via an online portal, as well as a national helpline. In the long run, we want to see an easily understandable, coordinated system of support which puts families and not the agencies at the centre. This will give families the best possible chance of reaching a secure and stable future without getting caught up in conflict and costly court cases.
Our report was welcomed by both Caroline Dinenage, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, and Baroness Altmann, Minister of State for Pensions which is a positive signal. What is now required is a bold, concerted focus across Government and providers like Relate to start making effective, joined up support for separating families a reality.