By Hugh Logue, Newswatch Editor
The Family Justice Review panel has today published its final report (download here ) announcing a range of recommendations aimed at tackling delays and generally improving the family justice system.
Changes to public law children cases include a recommendation to introduce a new six month time limit in care cases so delays are significantly reduced. In addition the panel proposed that the family courts place less reliance on 'unnecessary' expert witnesses and reports and refocus on determining whether the child should go into care.
Law Society Chief Executive Desmond Hudson said that the Government will have to find the resources to implement the recommendations.
"To effectively halve the time which cases take now will require additional resources - more court time and more judges' time. It will also require more time from family solicitors, but that is under threat from cuts in legal aid fees and scope," Mr Hudson said.
In an effort to create a more consistent and simple court service, the review recommends more judges who are specialists in family law to hear cases from start to finish. As previously announced in the interim report, the proposals also include incorporating Cafcass into a new service where it would work jointly with the courts service, legal aid and other partner agencies within a single service.
Recommendations on private law children cases include a single online and phone help service to make it simpler for people to decide the most appropriate way forward and increase clarity of understanding. The panel also propose using Parenting Agreements and a new ‘child arrangements order' to bring together arrangements for children's care after separation, focusing on the child rather than ‘contact' and ‘residence'. As expected, the review recommends increased provision of mediation to prevent cases going to court unnecessarily.
David Norgrove, chair of the Family Justice Review, said: "Our package of recommendations to the Government and the judiciary will make the current family justice system more effective. We need to eliminate the shocking delays in the system.
"Every year 500,000 children and adults are involved in the family justice system. They turn to it at times of great stress and conflict. It must deliver the best possible outcome for all the children and families who use it, because its decisions directly affect the lives and futures of all those involved, and have repercussions for society as a whole."
The Government has welcomed the Review and has announced that from January 2012 it will publish court-by-court performance so everyone can see exactly where improvements need to be targeted. In addition it has announced that it will be increasing funding for mediation by two thirds to £25 million a year.
Fathers' rights groups have criticised the panel's decision not recommend that there should be a presumption in law of shared parenting.
Ken Sanderson, CEO of Families Need Fathers, commented: "The core failing of the current family justice system is that the rights of children to maintain meaningful relationships with both parents, as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, are not adequately supported or enforced. By choosing not to address this issue, any other proposals to reform the system will be merely superficial adjustments to a fundamentally broken system."
However, Tanya Roberts, partner at Charles Russell LLP believes the panel's recommendations are appropriate.
"The Family Justice review makes interesting reading but its conclusions regarding grandparents and fathers are not surprising. They are sensible and measured and emphasise the most important aspect namely that decisions about children should be based on what is in their best interests and therefore what is appropriate in each individual case depending on its facts," Ms Roberts said.
To read more about the Family Justice Review, see the collected papers of the 2011 Dartington Hall conference which include a Memo to the Norgrove Committee from the Conference.