Edward Timpson, Children’s Minister, speaks to local family justice boards about reforms to the family justice system.
Thanks, Kevin (Sadler, Director of Civil, Family and Tribunals HMCTS, member of the Family Justice Board and chair of the Performance Improvement Sub Group). It’s good to be here.
There can be few areas, where the law intervenes, that are more challenging than those relating to the safety of vulnerable children and family breakdown. Judgements about whether a child should be removed from their parents, about those parents’ rights, about how a separating couple share parenting, go to the very heart of our values as individuals and as a society.
Which is why it’s vital that the family justice system is working as well as possible.
As we’ve just heard, despite some good work over the past year, this is not the case at the moment. The Family Justice Review spelled out the system’s shortcomings all too clearly and much of its assessment still holds true.
Despite their crucial role in placing vulnerable children, the family courts still leave children waiting, on average, just under a year (45 weeks) - until recently it was over a year (56 weeks) - to resolve their care or supervision case. This is clearly unacceptable.
Nor is it acceptable that the courts are the first port of call for tens of thousands of parents applying for contact and residence issues every year. It’s crucial that we do more to encourage them to settle their disputes themselves, in more positive and constructive ways.
Because as adults procrastinate and squabble, children suffer. Their needs sidelined, their voices unheard and, in the worst instances, their welfare and their lives put at risk.
I’ve seen, first hand, the devastating consequences that this loss of focus on the child can have. Having grown up with over 80 foster children and adopted siblings - many of whom had been damaged by troubled backgrounds - I went on to spend a decade as a family barrister, often representing children in care.
This experience that reinforced what I’d seen at home - that many children could have been spared immense trauma and long-term harm if there had been more timely intervention in their lives.
By the time a case landed on my desk, the damage had, all too often, already been done, and it was a matter of trying to make the best of a bad job. It was apparent that cases were managed, all too often, for the convenience of adults rather than the interests of the child.
This cannot continue. We must, refocus the system where it should always be - on the needs of the individual child. This means reducing delays and promoting stability so that every child, whatever their background, has the chance to thrive and succeed.
You have already heard about the good work that the Family Justice Board and the judiciary have been doing together to take forward recommendations made by the Family Justice Review.
This is very encouraging, but we need to go further. The (Family Justice) Review called for a clear time limit for care proceedings, the need for decisions to be child-centred and for duplication to be reduced.
Children and Families Bill - measures to speed up care proceedings
Our reforms in the Children and Families Bill aim to do just this by sweeping away barriers to adoption and, crucially, by speeding up proceedings in the family courts.
So in future:
- there will be a maximum 26-week time limit for completing care and supervision proceedings
- there will a reduction in the number of expert reports, so that expert evidence in children’s cases is only used when necessary and not as a matter of routine
- it will be made explicit that, when the court considers a care plan, it should focus primarily on issues that are essential to its decision as to whether or not to make a care order
- bureaucracy will be reduced by removing the need for frequent renewals of interim care and supervision orders
We’re also speeding up and simplifying the adoption system.
I know from my own experience of having 2 adopted brothers - the Secretary of State has also spoken eloquently about his experience of being adopted - that adoption offers vulnerable children one of the most stable foundations for a successful life.
But chronic delays mean that children in care wait an average of 2 years to be adopted.
And, time, for these children, is critical. Evidence shows that a child’s chances of adoption are reduced by almost 20% for every year they spend in care.
Some children never find adoptive homes - because they’ve been left for too long on waiting lists and missed their chance.
Many will know that I’m committed to doing whatever it takes to change this and bring vulnerable children and prospective parents together more quickly.
We’re taking action on a number of fronts to achieve this, most notably, by legislating, through the bill, to promote ‘fostering for adoption’ placements, so people can foster the child they hope to adopt and build a bond earlier.
And, through the bill, ending the undue emphasis on finding an ethnic match between the child and adoptive parents.
A child’s background and individual characteristics are, of course, important, and we will maintain necessary checks and safeguards as already set out in the Children Act. But it’s not acceptable that it takes black children, on average, a year longer to find adoptive parents.
Child protection and social work reforms
These measures in the bill will be all the stronger because of our accompanying overhaul of child protection and social work which, again, refocus services and all those working in them, firmly on the needs of the child.
One of the most important recommendations from Professor Eileen Munro’s widely welcomed review of child protection was the need for guidance on the core legal requirements on all professionals working to keep children safe.
A clear framework within which professionals could exercise their expertise and judgment. And which spelled out what different agencies could expect from each other.
We’ve delivered on this in the revised Working Together guidance which came into force just this month. This, crucially, emphasises that safeguarding is the responsibility of all professionals who work with children, reinforcing, once again, the importance of multi-agency working.
We’re also reforming social work to provide greater support and leadership to the workforce and improve practice.
We’re appointing a chief social worker to lead the debate nationally about reform and, locally, each council is appointing a principal child and family social worker to lead on standards of practice and on learning locally.
We’ve also set up the College of Social Work and initiated a strengthened Ofsted inspection framework.
And are looking to do for social work what has been done for teaching through TeachFirst.
Which is why we’re so supportive of Frontline, a brilliant idea by a TeachFirst graduate, to get talented, committed graduates into social work. I’m hopeful we can get this up and running soon.
Private law proceedings
In all of this, whether in our transformation of the care system, child protection or the workforce, the unwavering emphasis remains on the needs of the child.
This is also true of the measures, in the bill, to reform private law proceedings.
These explicitly acknowledge the essential role both parents should play in a child’s life after they’ve separated, unless there’s a genuine welfare reason why this is not appropriate. As well as sending a clear message about what is right for children, the changes will help address the perception among parents that the courts are biased in favour of one or other parent.
And, crucially, these proposals will spur separated parents on to resolve their disputes out of court wherever possible by making attendance at a mediation, information and assessment meeting a prerequisite for applying to court for certain types of family proceedings.
This will be underpinned by better online information, access to relevant programmes, and support for separating couples to develop parenting agreements. Parents will also be encouraged, through the dispute resolution process, to consider the importance to children of relationships with wider family members, particularly grandparents.
Single family court
Now, for our reforms to work well, it’s important that the right, supporting structures are in place.
The Family Justice Review found that, despite some improvements, there remained problems and inconsistencies in the family court system and, as you’ve just heard, recommended that we set up a single family court. A court with a single point of entry, and that all levels of family judiciary, including magistrates, should sit in the family court.
I know that, many here, have wanted to see this happen for some time.
So I’m pleased to say that we’ll be taking this recommendation forward in in the Crime and Courts Bill, which is awaiting royal assent. We expect the single family court to be up and running by April 2014 and will be looking to assist you to make it a success.
The creation of this court and our reforms in the bill are a big step towards a brighter, more stable future for children and families who come through the system.
But we all know that a change in the law isn’t enough. What we need is a change in culture; so that there’s a real commitment from all concerned to cut through drift and delay and put children’s needs - especially the most vulnerable - first.
I know, from my own experience as a family barrister, what a crucial role you all have to play in leading this shift in attitudes and culture.
This was underlined to me when I recently attended a national Family Justice Board meeting. I was reassured by the willingness, I saw there, from people on all sides to work together to improve practice. I know that this spirit of co-operation is also very much alive locally, where there’s been significant progress in the past year.
You are to be hugely congratulated on all you’ve achieved so far. I’m keen that we should build on this good work and momentum and want to say, now, how enormously grateful I am for all your efforts.
This is, by no means, an easy endeavour. But we must never forget that these children are counting on us to our best for them.
To protect them from danger and damage, to find them stable, loving homes, to help them enjoy a good relationships with parents who’ve parted.
To, in short, help them have the kind of childhood and life chances we would wish for our own children.