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New qualitative study on family separation shows experiences are shaped by access to support, and families often try to avoid using court

A new qualitative research study published by Nuffield Family Justice Observatory and carried out by the University of Bristol explores the experiences of separating families. It includes an analysis of the support families received while going through separation and highlights that in most cases, parents managed the process without using the family court.

Each year, many thousands of parents decide to end their relationship as a couple. The research aimed to understand more about the process of separation and how it is experienced by different family members, the challenges families face, and the kind of support that parents and children find useful. The findings are based on qualitative data from 42 family members (mothers, fathers and children) across Wales and the South West of England, who recorded video reflections and took part in in-depth interviews with the University of Bristol research team.

The participants’ experiences of separation were significantly shaped by access to material and emotional resources and support. For example, receiving advice and practical and financial assistance from friends and family, or having help to find new accommodation, made it easier for people to manage the separation and navigate practical and emotional challenges. Without these resources, parents found it more difficult to protect their children from the impact of separation. People valued support that was easily accessible, informative, realistic and emotionally aware.

Sources of support rarely involved the family court. Parents commonly treated court as a ‘last resort’, rather than as a preferred way to resolve disputes. Reasons for avoiding court included the expense and stress involved, or because it was likely to increase conflict within the relationship. Only a small number of parents in the study had used the family court. Although some valued the granting of court orders for the certainty it gave them, most described the process in negative terms, finding court intimidating and the processes unfamiliar. Children who had experienced court did not feel they had been listened to or believed – although when they felt their Cafcass guardian had listened, their experience was more positive.

Mediation has been emphasised by policy makers as a preferred form of dispute resolution, and as a mandatory step in the legal process*. However, for the parents in this study, mediation didn’t always meet their needs. It was common for it to be frustrating and sometimes distressing, because the information was not clear or realistic, the mediator was not able to effectively identify and manage the power dynamics between parents, or because there were misplaced expectations. In some cases, there had not been effective screening for domestic abuse to assess whether mediation was appropriate.

Counselling, on the other hand, was found to be valuable. Parents appreciated the emotional support they received, and the opportunity to express and process their feelings about the separation to someone who was impartial.

The children in the study were emotionally and practically affected by their parents’ separation. The way that many children found out about their parents’ separation did not help their understanding, contributing further to their distress. They had little information about, or participation in, decisions affecting them.

While parents aimed to prioritise and protect their children throughout the separation for example by attempting to suppress negative emotions towards their ex-partner and resolve disagreements so relationships could be maintained – some found this difficult because they were managing their own emotional distress, and also struggled to understand exactly what their children needed in terms of information and involvement in decision making.

Jude Eyre, associate director for strategy and delivery at Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, said: “Nuffield Family Justice Observatory has commissioned research to try to better understand parents’ and children’s experiences of separation and court proceedings, and inform ongoing debates about how to better meet families’ needs – both in and out of court.

There has been concern about the number of parents seeking to resolve their issues and disputes in the family court. This study found that parents avoided court if possible providing contrasting evidence to the commonly held view that parents use the court as a first port of call1. While not generalisable across the whole population, the findings from this study help us understand the reasons why some parents avoid legal routesnamely concern about the repercussions for their relationship, and costs, which can be prohibitive.

Meanwhile, the findings on mediation suggest there is a need for policy developments to move away from a binary model of court or mediation. Any further efforts to divert families from court should include development of offers beyond mediation, which focus more on advice, guidance and emotional support for parents and their children.

Dr Jon Symonds, senior lecturer in social work with children and families at the University of Bristol, said: This research shows that more thought needs to be given to how parents can be supported to meet the needs of their children, especially around providing them with age-appropriate information – with some parents expressing an uncertainty about the best ways and times to explain the separation to their children. It may also be positive for children, especially older children and young adults, to be able to access information directly. We also need to think about what services are in place to provide a separation ‘safety net’ for people who do not otherwise have the resources required to navigate separation.

A further key finding from the study was that separation is a process, not a single event. Parents described a wide range of difficulties prior to separation, which they had attempted to resolve. Furthermore, legal formalisation rarely marked the end of a relationship, and ongoing negotiation to manage family life was often required, especially when children’s needs, or parents’ circumstances, changed. For children, the separation was never complete.