Professionals can help create a cheaper and more responsive family justice system with mediation at its heart, says justice minister Jonathon Djanogly
In the three months since my appointment to the government, it has become clear that the family justice system is at the frontline of some of the most complex and intractable issues that confront society today.
The question that cries out to be answered is how that system can better meet the needs of the people it seeks to serve, particularly today when the shape and structure of families have changed so much.
Part of this question is how we can radically improve efficiency within the system so that it provides much improved value for money for the taxpayer and the service user.
That’s why I’ve asked David Norgrove, chair of the Family Justice Review which was set up earlier in the year to examine the effectiveness of the family justice system, to refresh its scope.
The review will focus on a number of issues, including how the system is managed and organised, the processes involved in deciding contact rights for families, and examining both public and private law cases. It will report back next year.
Last month the review panel issued a call for evidence from professionals who work in the family justice system and families who come into contact with it. It’s the insight and knowledge of the people like you, working in and using the family justice system, that will enable us to reform it.
Agencies and professionals with both direct and indirect involvement in family justice – from Cafcass to local authorities, mediators, children’s centres and health services – will fall under the scope of the review. And it will complement the work of the Department for Education’s Munro Review of social work and public protection. Both teams are working closely together to look at how cases involving children coming into care can be best managed.
Some of the changes that we need to make are already becoming apparent and are probably issues that people using the system have long found problematic. Non-resident parents and grandparents often tell us that the system is failing them in cases relating to contact rights. We want a dialogue with others like them who use the system and can help make it better.
In a system that costs the taxpayer more than £800m a year and is straining to keep up with increasing demand we have to be innovative, radical and questioning in our approach. We must also build a justice system flexible enough to harness new technologies and ideas as they emerge so we can deliver a better service to the public.
We need to ask whether court is always the best setting to deal with family proceedings. This in no way diminishes our responsibility for protecting the most vulnerable and giving people the access to justice they deserve, but we must also consider alternatives to costly legal processes that exhaust parents and distress children.
Mediation, for example, may well play a larger role in resolving family justice matters in the future. As well as avoiding the expense of court, it has already been shown that in some circumstances, agreements reached through mediation are better adhered to than court judgements.
In my view there is no time to waste in reforming a system which has in the past years under-delivered for the many families, children, practitioners and staff that it is meant to be there to support.
Together we have a unique opportunity to create a family justice system that we can all be proud of.
Our starting point is the Family Justice Review, and I encourage those of you with contact and experience of family justice to give your views.
We shall be keeping in touch with you as the review progresses and our plans for building a fairer, more effective family justice system take shape.
Jonathon Djanogly is parliamentary under-secretary of state for justice
This article is published in the 12 August issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Help us improve the family justice system