In an important new report the charity JUSTICE has recommended 43 ‘ambitious but realistic’ improvements to access to justice by separating parents who are unable to agree arrangements for their children.
With regard to the wider family justice system outside of court the recommendations include:
Information and early legal advice: JUSTICE recommends the creation of a single authoritative information website for separating families, and piloting of publicly funded early legal advice for child arrangements problems.
Coordination of legal and non-legal services: JUSTICE recommends the creation of ‘hubs, alliances and networks’ to coordinate services for separating families in the community, including contact centres; courses and workshops; domestic abuse support; legal support; mediation; mental health support; mentoring support; support for children; and other support groups.
A child participation presumption: Throughout the justice system, JUSTICE recommends a new presumption that all children will be offered the opportunity to participate in processes which assist in the resolution of a dispute which concerns them, both in and out of court, in an age-appropriate way. The presumption could be rebutted, for example if the child is too young, or if more harm would be done by involving the child than not.
Non-court dispute resolution: JUSTICE says that in addition to mediation, other non-court dispute resolution processes should be financially supported, including “packages” of support which combine legal help with non-legal help (like counselling). Non-court processes, they say, “need to be better supported to be child inclusive, through parental education, professional practice, and funding incentives.”
As for when cases go to court, the recommendations include:
The introduction of a “case progression officer”: In every case there should be a neutral, legally-trained court employee, who will: provide the family with information at the outset and throughout; manage preparation for hearings if one or both sides are unrepresented; answer queries about the outcome of any hearing; and help a litigant in person with the next steps required of them.
An initial investigation conducted by a “Court Team”: A multidisciplinary Court Team, consisting of the case progression officer, a Cafcass officer, and possibly others, should screen the whole family for risk, provide the family with information, talk to the adults and relevant third parties such as the child’s school, and also consult the child. The investigation could make referrals for support while the family try another process, such as mediation, or it could better prepare the case for the judge/magistrates.
Child participation in court: Following on from the child participation presumption, JUSTICE recommends that the court should have an explicit duty to offer children the opportunity to participate in proceedings, including letting the child meet the decision-maker more often, and giving the child feedback about the outcome and how their voice was taken into account.
Cases should be reviewed as standard: Lastly, JUSTICE recommends that a reviewing officer, normally from Cafcass, should follow up with the family, including the child, after a certain period of time to ask if the final order is working in the best interests of the child. If it isn’t, the same judge could hold a review hearing to consider any changes necessary.
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