Vulnerable children will be helped by new national standards that will raise the quality of expert evidence in family courts and end unnecessary delays, Justice Minister Lord McNally has announced.
Delays in family courts can have a damaging effect on already vulnerable children, and the Government is committed to making the system run as quickly as possible.
The new measures tackle one of the biggest causes of delays - the costly and unnecessary commissioning of additional written statements, clarifications and court appearances by expert witnesses. In the past, these have caused major delays in child care.
The standards, which have been developed in partnership with the Family Justice Council, will mean that only qualified, experienced and recognised professionals will be able to give evidence as expert witnesses in family proceedings relating to children.
Family Justice Minister Lord McNally said:
"It is important that expert witnesses are used effectively in deciding the future of vulnerable children.
"These new standards put the welfare of children at the heart of the system, so only the highest calibre evidence is permitted and cases are resolved quickly."
Heather Payne, the paediatrician member of the Family Justice Council and chair of its Experts Working Group (which drew up the standards), said:
"I am delighted that the standards received such strong support from so many professional and regulatory bodies representing the wide range of experts who give evidence in family proceedings. I feel that this demonstrates a high degree of consensus among experts that court outcomes for children can be improved using clear standards of best practice as part of a framework to promote quality assurance of the expert evidence provided in family cases.
"The standards are designed to improve quality, supply and use of expert evidence through peer review and benchmarking, support for multidisciplinary learning, and sanction of poor practice. In many cases, expert evidence is vital to help the courts reach the difficult decisions they are required to make. These standards are an important step forward in ensuring that the courts have access to the high quality expert evidence which they need. The FJC plans to continue working with our professional colleagues to continue this quality improvement process across all fields of expertise."
Not only are the standards being raised but the number of experts used in court cases has already been reduced to speed up cases. In January, changes to the Family Procedure Rules were introduced. These changes ensure that expert evidence is only commissioned where it was necessary to resolve a case justly, thereby removing unnecessary evidence and duplication.
The new standards are expected to be implemented from April 2014. Well qualified and experienced experts will continue to provide their valuable service in advising the family courts but others who provide evidence that is unnecessary or poor quality will no longer be used.
The standards include ensuring the expert:
has knowledge appropriate to the court case;
has been active in the area of work or practice and has sufficient experience of the issues relevant to the case;
is either regulated or accredited to a registered body where this is appropriate;
has relevant qualifications and has received appropriate training; and
complies with safeguarding requirements.
The Government has already put in place a number of changes to speed up family courts and is currently changing the law to bring in a 26-week time limit for care proceedings so there is a much clearer focus on the child and their needs and cases don't get caught up in unnecessary delay. The average time taken for care cases has already been reduced from more than 56 weeks to 41 weeks.
The joint Ministry of Justice and Family Justice Council response to the consultation on expert witnesses published today will bring in the new minimum standards. The announcement fulfils an important recommendation of the Family Justice Review.
The full document "Joint Ministry of Justice and Family Justice Council Response: Standards for expert witnesses in Children's Proceedings in the family courts" is available to download below.