Family Justice Review panel publishes interim report
The family justice system is 'too complicated', says panel
The Family Justice Review panel, chaired by David Norgrove, has delivered an interim report to the Ministry of Justice.
The panel has concluded that the family justice system needs significant reform to tackle delays and ensure that children and families get the service they deserve.
The panel has recommended a package of proposals aimed at improving children's and families' experience of the system. A public consultation on these proposals is now underway.
During a year of speaking to children, parents and the dedicated people who work in family justice, the panel has found the system is not working to the full benefit of the children it is designed to help. This, it says, is because the system is too complicated, with overlapping structures and a lack of shared goals and objectives. The panel found this was causing harmful delays for vulnerable children and adults.
David Norgrove, Chair of the Family Justice Review panel, said:
'Children are the most important people in the family justice system.
'Family justice is under huge strain. Cases take far too long and delays are likely to rise. Children can wait well over a year for their futures to be settled. This is shocking.
'Our recommendations aim to tackle these issues, to bring greater coherence through organisational change and better management, making the system more able to cope with current and future pressures and to divert more issues away from court where appropriate.'
The Family Justice Review panel will make its final recommendations to governments in England and Wales this autumn. The interim report recommends:
A simpler system to deliver an improved service:
- A new Family Justice Service led by a National Family Justice Board, to draw the key functions of agencies together and see children and families all the way through the justice system with greater support and more efficiently.
- Local Family Justice Boards, as part of the Family Justice Service, to replace the existing plethora of arrangements.
- A unified family court system, streamlining services to replace the current three-tier system, creating more flexibility for family hearings.
- Specialist judges who hear cases from start to finish to ensure consistency and confidence in the system.
- Investment in systems to manage cases and to give information about how family justice operates.
- Court social work services should form part of the Family Justice Service, subsuming the role currently performed by Cafcass (Cafcass Cymru would continue to provide these services in Wales as this is a devolved function).
Public law (protecting children and taking them into care) that delivers more quickly for children:
- The welfare of the child should remain paramount in law, as at present. Courts should focus on the core issues that are most important to the welfare of the children.
- A bespoke timetable for resolving each child's situation should be established within a maximum allowed time limit for all cases to minimise the damage caused by uncertainty.
- Less reliance on unnecessary expert reports which can cause delay, when these are not in the best interests of the child.Measures to simplify processes and help manage cases better, including support for judges to manage cases more tightly.
A simpler service for families which are separating, aimed at helping them to focus on their children and to reach agreement, if possible without going to court:
- A statement inserted into law to reinforce the importance of the child continuing to have a meaningful relationship with both parents, alongside the need to protect the child from harm.
- Use of Parenting Agreements to bring together arrangements for children's care after separation, focusing on where the child spends time rather than 'contact' and 'residence' and reinforcing the importance of a relationship with grandparents and other relatives and friends who the child values.
- A single online and phone help point to make it simple for people to decide the most appropriate way forward.
- Assessment for mediation followed by access to Separated Parents Information Programmes and dispute resolution to help separating parents understand the impact of conflict on the children and to reach agreement.
- A court process that supports cases where there are serious welfare concerns and allows for cases to be dealt with according to complexity.
A full summary of the panel's recommendations can be found in the interim report.
Responses to the Interim Report
Association of Directors of Children's Services
Responding to the interim report, Matt Dunkley, Vice President of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said:
'A review of the family justice system is long overdue – the delays and costs in the current system are unsustainable and bad for the welfare of the children concerned, and that such delays have been allowed to increase to their current levels contradicts the system's claim to put the needs of children first.
'We are therefore delighted that the review reiterates the importance of a focus on the child's needs and views and look forward to building on the recommendations made in this review to create a family court system that actually puts the welfare of the child at the centre of all decision making. Situating the Family Justice Service within the Ministry of Justice must not hinder this aim nor cause conflict or confusion with policies for vulnerable children , including in children in care, emanating from the Department for Education.
'We look forward to further discussions around the shape of the court social work service and the development of clear roles and responsibilities for case management, care planning and for ensuring the safety of children involved in both private and public proceedings. There are clear challenges around the practical implementation of these proposals that the next stage of the review will have to address and local authorities will need to be deeply involved in those decisions. Some of the recommendations will require primary legislation and structural change over a long period, but some of the issues identified in the review need a speedier response to improve the increasing delays and costs . We would like the next stage of the review to identify those areas where there are quick wins – in particular around the use of multiple assessments and the duplication of effort in managing the system.'
Families Need Fathers
Craig Pickering, CEO of Families Need Fathers, said:
'The report contains a lot of good ideas, for example on judicial continuity and fast-tracking at least some cases. If it had gone further – especially on a presumption of shared parenting (not the same as a 50/50 split of time spent with each parent) – we would have a family law system that genuinely encourages both parents to play a significant role in their child's life following separation or divorce.
'We are a long way off understanding how these proposals, if implemented, would work in practice and whether they would achieve an environment where post separation parenting is shared. For example, this week it has been reported that a significant relationship with a father could be maintained over thousands of miles via Skype. Enshrining a presumption of shared parenting in UK law would be a more certain way to achieve the aim of the reforms proposed by the Review Panel.'
The Magistrates' Association welcomes the interim report of the Family Justice Review, recognising as it does the invaluable contribution that magistrates make within the family courts. Over half of all public law cases and a rising percentage of private law ones are handled by magistrates sitting in the family proceedings courts. The review proposals will present a significant challenge to all participants in family proceedings to measure up to its aspirations – not least HMCS as it seeks to reduce the resources allocated to support the judiciary in their vital work of protecting and promoting the best interests of the children whose cases come before them.
Malcolm Richardson, chairman of the Magistrates' Association Family Courts Committee, said:
'We particularly welcome the proposal to create an integrated family justice service including the responsibilities now held by CAFCASS, and the devolution of decision making to a local level where magistrates and judges can exercise influence over the services they require to successfully discharge their duties to the children involved in litigation.'
Children's Commissioner for England
Commenting on the Family Justice Review's interim report, Deputy Children's Commissioner for England Sue Berelowitz said:
'We are pleased the review has reaffirmed the significance of the Children Act 1989 and its requirement that the interests of the child are paramount. In particular we are delighted to see the emphasis placed on hearing children's views which is in accordance with Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Additionally we support the review's recommendation that the court process will be speeded up to achieve timely decisions for children.
'We welcome the proposal to establish a new Family Justice Service and the confirmation that the vital role of Children's Guardians in ascertaining children's best interests will be maintained.
'There are grounds for optimism that the overall impact of the review recommendations will make the system more child focussed and able to work better, for children young people and families.'
Family Law Bar Association
Stephen Cobb QC, Chairman of the Family Law Bar Association, said:
'We welcome its comments about the commitment of all those working in the family justice system and are pleased to see a clear recommendation for systemic change in the operation of the family courts.
'The proposal for the development of an integrated Family Justice Service, which is simpler and brings agencies together in a more co-ordinated way, is likely to enhance efficiency and reduce delay. We agree with the Panel that the current delays in the system are 'shocking'. However, in order to achieve these goals, the new system needs to be properly resourced and funded.
'A unified family court system is a welcome recommendation; further and importantly we believe, as we made clear to the panel through their evidence-gathering, that judicial continuity in family cases is an important key to reducing delay and promoting better outcomes for families.
'We were pleased to see that the panel specifically picked up and approved some of the submissions made by the Family Law Bar Association, and endorsed our proposal for a twin-track system for private law cases.
'Mediation and alternative dispute resolution has been a key feature of recent Government proposals. Whilst we recognise the benefits for separating parents of reaching agreement out of court, there will be many for whom mediation is not appropriate or ultimately successful. For those people, we support the Panel's view that where a dispute has to go to court, legal representation supports the parties, assists the court, shortens and focuses the court process and enhances the prospects of resolution.
'The proposal that public law cases should be dealt with in six months is laudable yet ambitious. Plainly many systemic changes will need to be implemented before this can be achieved.
'We also welcome the proposal to include in the legislation a proposal for there to be a statement that children should have meaningful relationships with both parents.
'We will take time to assess this lengthy and detailed report and look forward to working with the panel as it consults and finalises its Review. It is imperative that the Government does the same before moving forward with its own plans.'
Resolution said that the proposals appeared thoughtful and intelligent, but that it would study the report in detail to identify if there are any areas of concern.
David Allison, Chair of Resolution, said:
'We whole-heartedly agree with the Justice Review Panel's view that long and complicated legal processes are emotionally and financially draining for parents and distressing for children.
'The report's emphasis on encouraging separating couples to consider non-court dispute resolution services, and assessing whether they need parenting information, is potentially very positive. As the report seems to acknowledge, it will be important to ensure that mediation is not seen as a panacea for all couples and that other non-court options such as collaborative law are also promoted.'
The Justice Review Panel proposes to make it compulsory for all parties seeking to litigate to first be assessed by a mediator for suitability for a parenting information programme and for use of a dispute resolution service such as mediation. The mediator would then give a certificate to allow a court application.
'It will be very important to ensure that assessments of separating couples are carried out by trained professionals who are familiar with all types of dispute resolution processes,' said David Allison.
- family justice system