Today, 6th February 2012, the Government has announced that children and families in England and Wales will benefit from major reforms to the family justice system which will tackle delays, streamline processes and rebuild trust.
In response to the recommendations made by the independent Family Justice Review Panel, Ministers have outlined their plans to reform the system to help strengthen parenting, reduce the time it takes cases to progress through the courts, and simplify the family justice system.
The major reforms are outlined below:
Shared parenting for the best interests of the child:
- The changes in education and the introduction of parenting agreements which the Review recommended will help ensure better recognition of the joint role of parents within wider society.
- The Government also accepts the need to clarify and restore public confidence that the courts recognise the joint nature of parenting. We will therefore make a legislative statement emphasising the importance of children having an ongoing relationship with both their parents after family separation, where that is safe, and in the child’s best interests. The Government is mindful of the lessons which must be learnt from the Australian experience of legislating in this area, which were highlighted by the Review and led them to urge caution. We will therefore consider very carefully how legislation can be framed to ensure that a meaningful relationship is not about equal division of time, but the quality of parenting received by the child.
Speeding up care and adoption cases by reforming the Public Law System and increasing transparency.The Government has already begun to publish data on the timeliness of court cases so we can see where delays are occurring. We will introduce legislation at the earliest opportunity to enable a six month time limit to be set and wherever possible we expect cases to be completed more quickly, while retaining the flexibility to extend complex cases where this is genuinely in the child’s interest.
Simplifying the family justice system to help separating couples reach lasting agreement speedily, if possible without going to court. The Government will make it mandatory for separating parents who propose court action to resolve a dispute about their child to have an initial assessment to see if mediation is something which would be suitable instead, to help them agree on the arrangements for their child. We estimate that we will spend an extra £10m a year on legal aid for family mediation taking the total to £25m per year (although we have placed no upper limit on this figure). We will also examine how to give the Courts more robust enforcement tools to combat failure to comply with judgments.
Driving culture change and better cross-system working through the establishment of a new Family Justice Board, accountable to Ministers, made up of senior figures representing the key organisations who play a role within the system and who will have a clear remit to improve performance.
Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke said:
‘The reform of family justice and child protection is a critical priority for Government. Our reforms are ambitious and system-wide and particularly tackle the crucial problem of delay.
‘More use of mediation, more effective court processes and more efficient provision of advice will help to create a family justice system which can better resolve these difficult emotional problems in the best interests of children and families.’
Children’s Minister Tim Loughton said:
‘It is unacceptable for vulnerable children, who come into the court system through no fault of their own, to be waiting an average of 55 weeks for a decision about their future.
‘The introduction of a new six month time limit on care cases sends a clear signal to everyone involved in the process that we want to see radical improvement. Speeding up the court system, and getting earlier decisions about a child’s future, will help ensure that more children are found loving homes more quickly.’
‘On the issue of shared parenting, we accept the need to clarify and restore public confidence that the courts properly recognise the joint nature of parenting. We will be legislating to emphasise the importance of children having an ongoing relationship with both their parents after separation, where that is safe and in the child’s best interests.’
Family justice review Chair, David Norgrove said:
‘I welcome the government response to the family justice review. The review presented the government with a bold and challenging agenda for change. I am pleased the government have accepted the overwhelming majority of our recommendations. The result should be to reduce the long delays that are so damaging to children and families and to help separating couples sort out their issues for themselves to the benefit of their children.’
The key principles of reform
We are being guided by a number of key principles in our responses to the Review’s recommendations –
- That the welfare of the child remains the paramount consideration in any proceedings determining the upbringing of the child;
- That the family is nearly always the best place for bringing up children, except where there is a risk of significant harm;
- That in private law, specifically, problems should be resolved out of court, and the courts will only become involved where it is really necessary;
- Where court is the right option, that children deserve a family court in which their needs come first;
- That both in public and private law cases children must be given an opportunity to have their voices heard in the decisions that affect them;
- That the process must protect vulnerable children, and their families;
- That this is a task not limited in responsibility to one organisation or another, but something we must all work on together; and
- That judicial independence must be upheld as the system is made more coherent and managed more effectively.
Other key commitments in the Government’s response are:
- To consider how Parenting Agreements could be used to emphasise the need for parents to consider how the child can maintain a relationship with other close family members, such as grandparents.
- To reduce expense and delay caused by the excessive use of expert reports, strengthening their quality and ensuring only essential reports are commissioned
- To reduce the amount of time spent by Judges and Courts scrutinising care plans, focusing instead on the core or essential components when making care orders.
- To bring court social work closer to other court services by transferring Cafcass sponsorship to the Ministry of Justice;
- To create a single family court across England and Wales, with a single point of entry, to simplify the system and make it more accessible for families using the system.
The full Government response can be accessed here