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By Hugh Logue, Newswatch Editor
The Family Justice Review panel has published their interim report today and recommended a range of reforms that if implemented would radically reshape the family justice system.
The proposals 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. The new Family Justice Service will be 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. The aim is to simplify the system and increase efficiencies by pooling the resources of the different overlapping services.
Cafcass proposed an integrated family justice service in their submission to the Family Justice Review panel and has welcomed the recommendations. Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said: "This is a great report. We proposed an integrated family justice service in our submission, and have long believed this is the best way forward."
However both Cafcass and Resolution are apprehensive about proposals to increase the use of alternative dispute resolution in family proceedings and are concerned whether all mediators have a sufficient knowledge of child protection risks to carry out entry-level screening.
Broadly welcoming the report, David Allison, chair of Resolution said: ""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 recommendations also include introducing a unified family court system, with a single point of entry, in place of the current three tiers of court. All levels of family judiciary (including magistrates) would sit in the family court and work would be allocated depending upon case complexity. Specialist judges and magistrates would hear cases from start to finish ensuring judicial continuity in all family cases
Amongst the many recommendations, is an innovative proposal for initiating divorce proceedings online where the it is not disputed. The panel also recommends that the current two-stage process of decree nisi/decree absolute should be replaced by a single notice of divorce.
A new dedicated post is proposed - a Senior Family Presiding Judge - who will report to the President of the Family Division on the effectiveness of family work amongst the judiciary. Family Division Liaison Judges would be renamed Family Presiding Judges and report to the Senior Family Presiding Judge.
In public law cases, the panel has recommended that the court should only concern itself with the core issues of child care proceedings and leave other aspects and details of any care plans to the local authorities. It proposes that the time limit for the completion of care and supervision proceedings within six months should be put into legislation.
Possibly in response to submissions from parents' rights groups, the panel has recommended a statement be 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.
However parents' rights groups are disappointed that the proposals fall far short of recommending a presumption in law of shared parenting. 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."
In an effort to reduce the number of unnecessary expert reports, the panel has recommended a number of provisions including giving judges the powers to enable them to refuse expert assessments and only allowing Independent Social Workers to be employed to provide new information to the court, not as a way of replacing the assessments that should have been submitted by the social worker or the guardian.
David Norgrove (pictured), chair of the Family Justice Review panel, said: "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 review panel's recommendations are now open to consultation after which it will publish its final report in the autumn. The consultation will last for 12 weeks and will close on 23 June.
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