A reason to celebrate or commiserate?
Today sees many changes to the Family Justice system which I welcome with an element of caution.
One Family Court where cases will be allocated to the appropriate level of Judge at the outset and where there will be increased administrative efficiency and increased judicial continuity.
In the public law child care field the time limit for concluding care proceedings has a new target of 26 weeks. However, the President of the Family Division has very helpfully provided guidance and direction in relation to this “target” which is that we must recognise that there will be some cases that simply cannot conclude within that timeframe where it is absolutely necessary in order to meet the demands of JUSTICE, FAIR PROCESS OR OF THE CHILD’S WELFARE
Extending the 26 week time limit will need to be decided on a case by case basis but will include the following types of cases:
i. Where it is clear from the OUTSET that time beyond 26 weeks will be necessary. Examples of the types of cases are:
- those cases involving complex medical evidence where expert evidence will be necessary to assist the court to determine the issues;
- Family Drug and Alcohol Cases [“FDAC”] where problem solving specialist multi-disciplinary teams support parents to overcome the problems that have put their children at risk with the aim of keeping families together
- Cases involving an International element
- Parents with disabilities who require specialist assessments
ii. Where something UNEXPECTED emerges eg: death of a party; realistic family member becoming available as a carer; serious illness or imprisonment
iii. Where the case has become THWARTED because of a litigation failure on the part of one or more of the parties.
It is absolutely essential that we are not swept along with the apparent furore of some Government Ministers that this will see children removed from their birth parents and placed with adopters in the blink of an eyelid. This is not what children want or deserve. Adoption is right and necessary for some children and the recent Adoption report from Bristol University dated 9.04.14 provides encouraging information about how well Adoption is actually working. However, we need to recognise that Adoption is a draconian step which should never be undertaken lightly and that no child should be removed from their birth parent unless there is simply no alternative available to them within the child’s timescales bearing in mind children cannot and should not have to wait indefinitely.
It is absolutely right that children want and most importantly need stability and security as well as being safe, protected and of course loved but in my experience a child needs to understand why they could not live with their birth family and unless we can show that this was properly and justly exhausted I firmly believe we will have a future society that will come back to question why this was allowed to happen.
I echo the words of Pauffley, J High Court Judge of immense experience “Justice should never be sacrificed on the altar of speed.”
In the private law field of law there are equally many changes. These include:
A new Child Arrangements Programme which provides for:
i. An increased emphasis on the need for Mediation with the applicant being compelled to meet with a Mediator before issuing proceedings and with the respondent [opponent] being notified and encouraged to attend. This compulsion is re-visited after proceedings have been issued with a Judge being able to refer either party for such meeting where the applicant had not previously complied with requirement to attend
ii. Gone are Residence Orders and Contact Order and In come Child Arrangements Orders:
- These decide with whom a child is to live, spend time or otherwise have contact and
- When a child is to live, spend time or otherwise have contact with any person
In the event of any breach of these orders the parties can be reuired to undertake activities designed to help them understand the importance of complying with the order and making it work
“These family justice reforms put children clearly at the heart of the family justice system and focus on children’s needs rather than what parents see as their own ‘rights’,” Justice Minister Simon Hughes has announced.
Commendable as this is there are drawbacks which cause me concern:
- Many families who are in desperate need of public funding in order to achieve orders relating to divorce and children do not meet the necessary domestic violence criteria. This means that families are often unable to separate or the weaker of the partners gains advantages over the other both in monetary and children issues. The criteria needs to be changed and it needs to be changed now if what the Justice Minister is asserting is to be truly reflected in Government policies
- I understand the plan is for law students to assist the public:
Frances Gibb Legal Editor
Published at 12:01AM, April 22 2014
Students and trainee lawyers will be drafted in to “hold the hands” of divorcing couples as they go through the courts under the biggest shake-up of family justice in 25 years, which comes into force today
About half of all people now going to court with divorce-related disputes do not have lawyers as they are not eligible for legal aid to help to pay for them.
What’s next – medical students conducting heart surgery?
What I would like to know is:
i. Who will supervise the law students
ii. What insurance cover will they have to pay for compensation claims when things go wrong
iii. How will this be funded?
These are serious lifetime/life changing problems/events and they need to be treated with respect.
We need to embrace efficiency but respect experience and wisdom and the need for it.
A day to remember or one we will wish to forget?
June Venters QC