Family law shake-up puts emphasis on out-of-court parent mediation

    Some of the nation’s most needy children are set to benefit from
    proposals to shake up the family justice system in England and
    Wales.

    The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service will
    move away from private family law cases involving the writing of
    30,000 dispute reports a year to reduce the backlog of public law
    cases which deal with care proceedings and adoption.

    The organisation’s budget was boosted by £12m to £107m
    for 2004-5 in the recent spending review to meet the changes.

    Cafcass practitioners in both public and private cases will be
    expected to take on a mediation role in an attempt to steer parents
    in dispute over contact away from the courts. Only those with
    allegations of abuse will be dealt with in court.

    However, voluntary organisations have warned that the government’s
    quest to speed up court cases could put children at risk.

    Children’s charity NCH said the proposals would be “disastrous”
    without sufficient funding and an emphasis on specialist services
    to allow children to build trusting relationships in order to
    disclose abuse.

    Children’s policy officer for Women’s Aid Hilary Saunders said the
    charity’s 2003 research revealed that only 6 per cent of children
    who said they did not want contact with a violent parent were being
    listened to in courts.

    “There is no clear guidance on how judges should deal with domestic
    violence,” she said. “This means cases where children have been put
    at risk because they are forced to have contact with a violent
    parent will continue to happen.”

    The green paper acknowledges that implementation of guidelines for
    courts on dealing with domestic violence and child contact drawn up
    by the Children Act sub-committee has been patchy to date. Legal
    changes will be introduced from January 2005.

    Funding for contact centres is also of prime importance and is due
    to be announced by the Department for Education and Skills
    shortly.

    Fathers’ charity Fathers Direct described the green paper as a
    historic moment “marking a shift to a legal system that can deliver
    co-parenting after separation and protect children from
    harm”.

    However, Fathers4Justice said it was disappointed that the
    government had failed to adopt 50-50 parenting and promised more
    protests.

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