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In late April 2014, three simultaneous changes to the way family courts in England and Wales operate will be launched. The first is the revised Public Law Outline (PLO). While it is not much different from the version of the PLO in use since July 2013, it will define the landscape for how care applications will be dealt with for some years to come. Early use indicates that children needing safe care and stability can be placed much more quickly as a result of the revised PLO, if a suitable placement has been identified by the issues resolution hearing or a combined care and placement final hearing.
The second change is the introduction of Child Arrangements Orders and the switch from the current Private Law Programme to the Children's Arrangements Programme or CAP - not the common agricultural policy! The intention is to place more emphasis on what children need, rather than what parents want. As the cases that come to court are the hardest to resolve, it will remain a challenge to practise effective dispute resolution in a court environment where it is now the norm to be unrepresented and where often neither party has the benefit of an advocate to narrow the issues for them. However, research by Liz Trinder and others makes it clear that dispute resolution and, in some cases, a safeguarding strategy, are the most effective interventions, however intractable the parents and however long the case has been in court. As Mrs Justice Parker says, it is wrong for parents in these cases to recruit their children as child soldiers to fight on one side or the other. Parents who do this will continue to be challenged to do better by judges, magistrates, advocates and Cafcass practitioners, to support their children at a higher moral and ethical standard.
Third, the single family court should establish more effective gate-keeping and allocation of cases, so that cases are heard by the right person or bench at the right time. While this is a service behind the scenes, it is a crucial systemic change, even if some training for magistrates cannot be held until after the launch in April. Over time, I believe that these three changes will enable all of us working in the family courts to use our scarce resources to better effect, by focusing limited professional time on fewer hearings and earlier positive outcomes for children.
This post originally featured as content on the family section of The Law Society's website, you can read more here.
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