by John Simmonds
There is now less than a week until the consultation on children cases in the family court closes, yet the response rate from local authorities and social workers so far has been low.
It is a matter of urgency that the sector submits its views on the recommendations to ensure any change is evidence and experience-led.
The consultation and interim report have been developed in response to serious questions raised by former president of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, about a family court system on the verge of collapse.
Family court consultation: key recommendations
The interim report on achieving best practice in the child protection and family justice systems has been prepared by a working group chaired by Mr Justice Keehan and including several other judges and legal practitioners, senior managers from local authority children’s services and Cafcass, government representatives and others. It makes 73 core and longer-term recommendations, including:
- Shifting culture to encourage greater mutual respect of all parties involved in proceedings
- Renewing focus on pre-proceedings work and managing risk
- Reconsidering the role of Cafcass pre-proceedings
- Making special guardianship assessments and support plans more robust, and providing better training for special guardians
- Considering pre-birth support for families
- Reviewing how the family justice system is funded.
A separate report covering private law is also being consulted on, which includes recommendations around improving out-of-court family resolution services, forming local alliances of services to provide integrated support for families experiencing separation, and moving cases through the court system more effectively.
There are a number of significant factors – cuts to the system and the closure of courts, the increasing number of cases, the complexity of the cases, and the rise in parents having to represent themselves because of the severe restrictions in the availability of legal aid. All these issues have had a profound impact on local authority children’s services.
Resolving the primary issues outside the court arena when it comes to the safety, welfare and future of children could not be more important. Care proceedings clearly are intended to be ‘problem solving’, but the escalation of the issues to court creates a particularly challenging set of circumstances – truth and lies, right and wrong, guilty or not guilty.
The forces at work seriously heighten an emotionally charged atmosphere that does little to enable proactive engagement that focuses on meaningful ‘problem solving’. At the end of this process there must be a resolution to the primary question of what is in the child’s best interests now and into the future, but a lot will have been lost as a part of this process.
In the 30th year of the Children Act 1989, there is much to be celebrated. As primary legislation, it radically changed our perspective on children from a focus on the rights of parents when it comes to their children to a perspective that prioritised the responsibilities of parents towards their children, with the child’s welfare the paramount driver.
Get up to speed on family law
Social workers can enhance their family law knowledge and readiness to give evidence in the family court at this year’s Community Care Live, at one of our legal learning sessions, which include:
- An update on special guardianship orders
- Sibling placements: lessons from case law
- Evidence decision-making in evidence to court proceedings
- Immigration law and the Children Act 1989
You can reserve your place at any of these seminars by registering for the event and then selecting your preferred session, with a fee of £29 plus VAT per seminar.
A second principle was an expectation that when families found themselves in crisis, as they commonly do, that it was the responsibility of the state to work with the family to resolve those problems by providing effective services in partnership and ‘problem solving’ mode. The legal definition of ‘children in need’ and ‘children in need of protection’ and the availability of ‘accommodation’ as requested by the parents as a part of ‘problem solving’ was key.
Although these primary issues have not been abandoned – they continue in law – it is not possible to avoid the serious questions that arise about the reality of the lack of funding to support the provision of effective services when families find themselves in difficulty. Care proceedings can address some of the most serious issues but only at the most challenging end of the spectrum.
These issues are addressed in the interim report and run through some of the recommendations in the consultation document. There is an urgent need for the sector to express its views through responding to the consultation before this major opportunity expires at the end of the month.
John Simmonds is the director of policy, research and development at CoramBAAF, an independent membership organisation for professionals, foster carers and adopters, and anyone else working with or looking after children in or from care, or adults who have been affected by adoption.