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14 JUL 2011

Justice Committee publishes report on operation of family courts

CommitteeFamily Courts will need to be more prepared to cope with litigants representing themselves following Government reforms to Legal Aid, MPs on the Justice Committee have warned in a new report published today.

In July last year, the Justice Select Committee launched an inquiry into the operation of the family courts. The Committee announced it would investigate the effectiveness of Cafcass, the impact of legal aid changes, the role of mediation, and media access to family courts. It also reviewed the Family Justice Review's interim proposals.

The Committee has concluded that although many family disputes could be better dealt with by mediation than in a court, there will still be cases which go to court and there will be significantly more litigants in person following changes to legal aid. As a result, the MPs warn that family courts are going to have to make adjustments to cope with more people representing themselves.

The MPs are 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.

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

Family law mediators have welcomed the Committee's report. Commenting Jane Robey, CEO of National Family Mediation said: "We are delighted that mediation will at long last play a much more central role in the settlement of relationship breakdown and court disputes.

"Personal debt as a result of the changes to legal aid is set to increase dramatically unless a mechanism is found to help people find alternative services, such as mediation, at a time of great personal stress and turmoil".

The Committee has rejected the Family Justice Review panel's 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 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 has called 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.

Ann Haigh, Chair of Nagalro, professional association for Children's Guardians, also welcomed the report and called on the government to address the MPs recommendations  on Cafcass as a matter of urgency: "It is shocking that a body whose sole purpose is to safeguard the interests of vulnerable children should fail to be child-focused. Children require a better service from Cafcass immediately. However, genuine culture change is required to bring about significant change at the top levels of the organisation.

"At the moment Cafcass's minimum 'proportionate' service is being systematically embedded and it is not good enough for children. Experienced guardians need to be freed up so that they can safeguard children effectively once more. There are many skilled guardians who could be brought back with the right approach."

Responding to Ms Haigh's comments, Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said: "In the last year we were worked on cases involving 147,000 vulnerable children - more than ever before. Ensuring that each of these children, rather than just some, receives a service has been our unwavering focus and has resulted in, as the Committee recognised, ‘a substantial reduction in unallocated cases, at a time when the number of public law cases continue to rise'.

"HMCS figures show that in less than three years the number of children in care and supervision cases before the family courts has increased from around 12,000 at the start of 2009 to more than 20,000 in March 2011. Coping with this scale of increase has put all agencies in the system under pressure and like all frontline services we have had to prioritise cases and tailor our service according to the needs of each individual child's case and in line with our resources. Where there has been strong multi-agency working, such as the Private Law Programme, we have seen an improved service to children. And it is on these joint solutions, to joint problems which we would urge the Family Justice Review Panel to continue to focus."

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