A national family justice board should be established to spearhead the fight against “shocking” delays and inefficiency in the English and Welsh justice system, an independent review has recommended.
The Family Justice Review – commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Education and the Welsh Assembly Government – today published its interim report into the state of the family justice system. It recommended “significant reform”.
Crucially, the review also decided the fate of family courts body Cafcass, recommending reform rather than abolition. Court social work services should form part of the new Family Justice Service, subsuming the role currently performed by Cafcass, the panel recommended.
Chair David Norgrove said the existing system was too complicated, with overlapping structures and a lack of shared goals and objectives. “Family justice is under huge strain. Cases take far too long and delays are likely to rise. Children can wait well over a year for their futures to be settled. This is shocking,” he said.
“Our recommendations aim to tackle these issues, to bring greater coherence through organisational change and better management, making the system more able to cope with current and future pressures and to divert more issues away from court where appropriate.”
The panel recommended that local family justice boards should be established as part of the family justice service and that specialist judges should hear cases from start to finish, “to ensure consistency and confidence in the system”. Judges should also receive more support to help manage care cases, the report stated.
For all public law cases, a bespoke timetable for resolving a child’s situation should be established within a maximum time limit, “to minimise the damage caused by uncertainty”. There should also be less reliance on “unnecessary” expert reports.
Anthony Douglas, chief executive of Cafcass, told Community Care that the panel’s vision is for one service incorporating all agencies, including Cafcass, HM Courts Service and the Legal Services Commission. He said Cafcass’s functions would continue within the new service and said that full implementation would require some legislative change.
“It will be a long and difficult change process but we are very pleased that our core functions have been recognised. The working assumption is that Cafcass practitioners’ work continues with, at some point, a change in the organisational arrangements. What matters is not the name but the functions.”
Douglas said the move should be seen as “game over” for those calling for Cafcass’s abolition. “It is now time to stop the politics and work together to move forward with the challenges we all face.
“The panel has recommended big change. Currently, the governance arrangements in the family justice system are very fragmented. To have one service: a single budget and a single set of management and commissioning arrangements will make money go much further and help deliver the best possible service to children and families,” he said.
Douglas said there was broad endorsement of the panel’s recommendations so far. “Of course in any political change or legislative process anything can happen, but the broad endorsement is real and I am confident there will be big change.”
A public consultation will follow the publication of today’s interim report. The review panel will publish its final report in the autumn.
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