The family justice system needs significant reform to tackle delays and ensure that children and families get the service they deserve.
The panel, who publish their interim report today, have 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 have found the system isn’t working to the full benefit of the children it is designed to help. This 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.
Notes to editors
- The consultation will last for 12 weeks and will close on 23 June.
- The expert panel were appointed by the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Education, and the Welsh Assembly Government on 16 February 2010. The review is being led by an independent chair, David Norgrove. Panel members include Mr Justice McFarlane, the Family Division Liaison Judge for the Midlands, John Coughlan CBE, Director of Children’s Services at Hampshire County Council, Dame Gillian Pugh, Chair of the National Children’s Bureau, Keith Towler, Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Baroness Shireen Richie.