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Justice Committee urges family courts to aid litigants in person

Committee urges ministers to ‘go back to the drawing board' on media access to the family courts

The House of Commons Justice Committee has published its report on the operation of the family courts. It warns that the family courts will need to be more prepared to cope with litigants representing themselves following Government reforms to legal aid.

The Chair of the Justice Select Committee, the Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP said:

"Many family disputes could be better dealt with by mediation than in a court. However, there will still be cases which go to court and there will be significantly more litigants in person following changes to legal aid. Courts are going to have to make adjustments to cope with more people representing themselves in what are often emotionally charged cases."

The Committee is also calling on the Government to scrap the provisions in the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010 to allow media access to family courts following universal condemnation of the plans. The report recommends that ministers reformulate proposals to increase transparency in family courts putting the views of children centre stage.

Sir Alan Beith added:

"Greater transparency in the administration of family justice is much needed, but it has to be balanced against the equally important requirement of protecting the interests of children. Ministers must go back to the drawing board when it comes to granting media access to family courts and properly consider the views of children who may be affected."

Maggie Atkinson, Children's Commissioner for England, has welcomed the Committee's findings in respect of access to the courts by the media: 

"The Justice Committee is right, and given the wider backdrop of the national focus on journalism and the invasion of privacy, the Government should reconsider its proposals to grant media wider reporting rights on family court cases.  The Committee has taken account of children and young people's grave concerns about their privacy in these circumstances, which was bought to their attention in our research on media access to family courts."

In its report, the committee rejects the Family Justice Panel's Interim Report recommendation that a statement be introduced into legislation to "reinforce" the importance of a child having a meaningful relationship with both parents.
The MPs believe it ought to be obvious to the courts, and to parents, that a child deserves a meaningful relationship with both parents but that inclusion of a statement in the law could create confusion and the mistaken impression the law had changed.

The committee heard evidence from Australia that family law reforms there had obscured the overriding importance of the best interests of the child.

The committee also calls on judges to reduce the costs and delays in case management associated with expert reports. Judges should be encouraged to, where possible, insist on joint reports and require clear explanations of why additional assessments are needed, ensuring the parties' solicitors work together to reduce the number of questions for the expert.

Government plans to fold Cafcass into the proposed new Family Justice Service do not go far enough, according to the report. The committee calls for this to be the first step in a series of reforms designed to transform the body into a less process-driven, more child focused and integral part of family justice.