There have been huge criticisms of delays for children going through family proceedings. The Family Justice Review highlights the need for:
- stronger leadership in the family justice system; and
- greater co-ordination of the organisations and people involved in family cases.
Recommendations have been made in three areas:
- the family justice system as a whole;
- public law ie, care proceedings; and
- private law ie, residence and contact proceedings.
We have set out some of the headline recommendations below. These will be of particular interest to those health professionals who work with children and adults who are involved in family proceedings.
Recommendations for the family justice system as a whole
- CAFCASS should be replaced by the creation of a Family Justice Service, sponsored by the Ministry of Justice, which will oversee the family justice system.
- A single family court should replace the current three-tier system (family proceedings court, county court and high court). The Family Division of the High Court is to remain but just deal with inherent jurisdiction and international work.
- Judges are to develop the skills and knowledge they need. This could include visiting relevant agencies involved in the system, possibly even health agencies.
Recommendations for public law
- The court should re-focus on the core issues:
4.1 Where should the child live?
4.2 Should there be regular, limited or no contact with the birth family?
- The court should not need to focus on other issues eg, the future health provision for the child.
- The Government should consult on sibling contact. Should legislation be amended to allow for reasonable contact to be promoted? Should siblings be able to apply for contact without the permission of the court?
- The revised Working Together guidance should emphasise the importance of the child’s timescales and appropriate use of proceedings by the local authority.
- There should be a statutory six-month time limit for the completion of care proceedings. Extensions would only be allowed by exception.
- The Public Law Outline should remain but be amended to reflect the new fixed time limit.
- The Letter Before Proceedings should be used more often. This warns the family of issues of concern and provides an opportunity to put them right and avoid care proceedings.
- Expert witnesses should only be used where the information is not available and cannot be obtained from parties already involved.
- Agreed quality standards for expert witnesses should be developed. Multi-disciplinary expert witness teams to undergo a further pilot. The value of residential assessments for parents to be reviewed.
- With regard to the representation of children, children should still have a guardian and a solicitor but both need not attend all hearings. The merit of using guardians pre-proceedings will need to be considered further. There should be further exploration of having in-house solicitors for children working alongside guardians.
- Alternatives to court proceedings should be considered:
14.1 Greater use of the Family Group Conference before proceedings.
14.2 A pilot to be established on formal mediation in public law cases.
- There should be further limited roll out of the Family Drug and Alcohol Court. This currently operates in inner London.
Recommendations for private law proceedings
- Parents to be given a short leaflet on parental responsibility (PR) when they register their child’s birth.
- Parents should be encouraged to develop a Parenting Agreement on separation. This would set out arrangements for the care of their children.
- Residence and contact orders to be replaced by the “child arrangement order”. This will cover all issues related to a child’s upbringing:
18.1 Fathers without PR could apply without the court’s permission.
18.2 Wider family members eg, grandparents, could apply with permission of the court.
18.3 Where the father needs PR to fulfil the order, the judge would grant that. For wider family members, PR could be granted for the duration of the order.
- The Government to establish an online information hub and helpline.
- Dispute Resolution Services should resolve disputes outside court wherever possible:
20.1 Parents initially attend a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting.
20.1.1 Cases with risks of domestic violence, an imbalance between parties or child protection issues should be immediately referred to the court.
20.2 Parents should then attend a Separated Parent Information Programme and then mediation.
20.3 Where agreement cannot be reached, the mediator will provide a certificate. The parents can then apply to the court.
20.4 The Government and judiciary should consider how children and vulnerable witnesses may be protected when giving evidence in family proceedings.
20.5 When an order is breached within 12 months, the case should go back to the same judge within a fixed number of days. The dispute should be resolved at a single hearing. After 12 months, the case should go back to Dispute Resolution Services.
Following the Family Justice Review, the next step will be for the Government to respond to the recommendations.