Family Justice Review – Government Response

Below is the text of the email sent to the "Partner Group" i.e. those who formally contributed to the FJR. Am mid-prep for a conference so cannot read or comment on the Government response, and offer this in lieu. More proper comment later...

The full Government response can be accessed here.

Today the Government has announced that children and families in England and Wales will benefit from major reforms to the family justice system which will tackle delays, streamline processes and rebuild trust.

In response to the recommendations made by the independent Family Justice Review Panel, Ministers have outlined their plans to reform the system to help strengthen parenting, reduce the time it takes cases to progress through the courts, and simplify the family justice system.

The major reforms are outlined below:

Shared parenting for the best interests of the child:

  • The changes in education and the introduction of parenting agreements which the Review recommended will help ensure better recognition of the joint role of parents within wider society.
  • The Government also accepts the need to clarify and restore public confidence that the courts recognise the joint nature of parenting.  We will therefore make a legislative statement emphasising the importance of children having an ongoing relationship with both their parents after family separation, where that is safe, and in the child's best interests.  The Government is mindful of the lessons which must be learnt from the Australian experience of legislating in this area, which were highlighted by the Review and led them to urge caution.  We will therefore consider very carefully how legislation can be framed to ensure that a meaningful relationship is not about equal division of time, but the quality of parenting received by the child.

Speeding up care and adoption cases by reforming the Public Law System and increasing transparency.  The Government has already begun to publish data on the timeliness of court cases so we can see where delays are occurring.  We will introduce legislation at the earliest opportunity to enable a six month time limit to be set and wherever possible we expect cases to be completed more quickly, while retaining the flexibility to extend complex cases where this is genuinely in the child’s interest.

Simplifying the family justice system to help separating couples reach lasting agreement speedily, if possible without going to court. The Government will make it mandatory for separating parents who propose court action to resolve a dispute about their child to have an initial assessment to see if mediation is something which would be suitable instead, to help them agree on the arrangements for their child.  We estimate that we will spend an extra  £10m a year on legal aid for family mediation taking the total to £25m per year (although we have placed no upper limit on this figure).  We will also examine how to give the Courts more robust enforcement tools to combat failure to comply with judgments.

Driving culture change and better cross-system working through the establishment of a new Family Justice Board, accountable to Ministers, made up of senior figures representing the key organisations who play a role within the system and who will have a clear remit to improve performance.

Other key commitments in the Government’s response are:

  • To consider how Parenting Agreements could be used to emphasise the need for parents to consider how the child can maintain a relationship with other close family members, such as grandparents.
  • To reduce expense and delay caused by the excessive use of expert reports, strengthening their quality and ensuring only essential reports are commissioned
  • To reduce the amount of time spent by Judges and Courts scrutinising care plans, focusing instead on the core or essential components when making care orders.
  • To bring court social work closer to other court services by transferring Cafcass sponsorship to the Ministry of Justice;
  • To create a single family court across England and Wales, with a single point of entry, to simplify the system and make it more accessible for families using the system.

 

 

Justice Select Committee Report Published

The Justice Select Committee today published it's report on the Government's proposed reforms of legal aid. I am reliably informed that family justice features heavily in the report, which adopts much of what the FLBA has had to say on the matter about the potential adverse impact of the proposals on children, and the inapposite nature of an eligibility test based solely on physical violence. I have not had an opportunity to read the report, but you can find it here and you can read the Guardian's piece on it here.

A combination of laziness and kindness lead me to spare you a picture of the ubiquitous, and irritatingly always-beaming-Ken-Clarke. I can see him grinning endearingly whenever I close my eyes to lay down to sleep. Unfortunately whilst the dulcet tones of Mr Clarke may have an unintended if mild soporific effect, this phenomenon rather less so.

Tomorrow will see the publication of the Family Justice Review Interim Report, so watch this space and this one.

Will post commentary if I can, but possibly will be tied up.

A GIFT from the MoJ

I was charmed to receive in my inbox today an invitation to help The Man promote the new policy of compulsory thinking-about-mediation. How kind. The editorial and content team at the MoJ thought the press release might be "good fuel for Pinktape". Adrian would like me to help him raise awareness "that there is an alternative that is likely to cost them less and be quicker" than court. But you see I am one step ahead of him - in a wholly uncustomary failure on the part of the Government to listen to those at the coal face, Adrian has apparently neglected to notice that I have already posted on this topic (here).

But waste not want not. He is correct, the press release is combustible and I can generate some heat at least, if not light.

Firstly, I will take the cheap points (if I may). They are an unnecessary distraction from the more meaty ones:

  • The new scheme is not an adjunct to the Family Proceedings Rules because they will be revoked as of 6 April 2011 and replaced with Family Procedure Rules 2010. It doesn't matter in the slightest, but if you are going to tinker with the name of your rules for no apparent reason you ought not to get them wrong in your own press release. Four times.
  • The choice of language is pretty base: "More Separating Couples To Be Spared Court Battles!". Fighting each other through lawyers". I actually do wear body armour at court. Actually. Sometimes we even settle cases by arm wrestling in the advocates room. Or by particularly vicious bouts of conkers. I do the Hakka every morning before I leave the house to get myself in the right frame of mind.
  • I like this best: "Jonathan Djanogly said: “Nearly every time I ask someone if their stressful divorce battle through the courts was worth it, their answer is no."" (*stage whisper* Mr Djanogly? Um. This is what we battling lawyers call "a leading question".)

Personally I don't have quite sufficient stamina tonight to construct a careful counter to Mr Djangoly's casual approach to statistics and evidence. But here is what is glaringly obvious from the face of the fatuous press release. 

Djangoly repeats the urban myth that “Currently many people repeatedly go to court to argue over matters they are better placed to sort out themselves – like securing 30 minutes extra contact time or varying their allocated contact days. This is expensive and emotionally draining for all concerned." B*llocks do they. The vast majority of cases which are in court are about more complex issues than this, and to suggest that this is in any way typical is quite insulting to those who do have to resort to court. Further, those poor people who find themselves arguing in court about 30 minutes of contact time or swapping days are either wholly unreasonable (and therefore unsuitable for mediation), control freaks (and therefore unsuitable for mediation) or have a partner who is wholly unreasonable, a control freak (and therefore unsuitable for mediation), or are cases where arguments about details such as these are indicators of something profoundly dysfunctional within the family unit and of an inability on the part of one parent to focus on the child's needs (and therefore unsuitable for mediation). What is lacking in this bluster about how the courts are full of trivial disputes between parents who should know better, and who would miraculously resolve all their disputes if only they would stop to think is any real analysis of the quite different profiles of that category of cases which are presently successfully mediated and that tranche that under the current system go to court. Even if it were correct that 2/3 of those who currently mediate reach full agreement (whether cases remain resolved 18 months down the line is a different question and likely has a different answer), that does not mean that the second category of cases would be capable of such high rates of success.

Do not think I am opposed to mediation. I'm not. It's not mediation or the promotion of mediation I'm attacking. It's the promotion of mediation as a potential solution for everyone (with the exception of a limited category of dv sufferers) and the fingers in ears approach to suggestions that there may only be a smallish proportion of the types of cases that currently go through the courts that can successfully be diverted elsewhere.

"Mediation is often quicker, cheaper and less confrontational than going to court. Research shows it can cost a quarter of the price and take a quarter of the time of going to court" [my emphasis]. It says here. No doubt this is true. But what those of us with an eye on budgetary matters will really want to know is whether it is cheaper overall, when the costs of both successful and unsuccessful cases are considered. No recognition is given to the fact that cases that mediate unsuccessfully are by their nature more lengthy, more expensive (emotionally and financially) and (because they are more entrenched) more confrontational. More mediation means not just more successful mediations (we hope), but also more unsuccessful mediations (we suspect). Will the burden on the public purse be reduced overall? Will the outcomes overall be better for families? The government doesn't know because it hasn't really analysed this issue.

It goes on: "National Audit Office figures on legally-aided mediation show that the average time for a mediated case to be completed is 110 days, compared to 435 days for court cases on similar issues. Mediation is also often cheaper than going to court - data from Legal Aid cases show the average cost per client of mediation is £535 compared to £2,823 for cases going to court." I suspect that "similar issues" comprises some sophisticated system of categories such as "residence" or "contact" or "applications for s8 orders" - if I am right this comparison tells us nothing other than that the complex cases litigate, the easy ones don't. And the average cost of mediation versus cases going to court is inevitably skewed by the inclusion of those vastly complex cases that run into the tens of thousands of pounds, and which of course could NEVER be solved by mediation. It will no doubt include no doubt those children cases involving domestic violence, with al the fact finding and expert assessment that such cases require. Cases that the government accepts are not suitable for mediation. These are bad comparisons. And in any event the figures are drawn from the LSCs own records, who have quite notorious problems historically with the robustness of their statistical and management information.

Finally, what the press release doesn't mention is Djanogly's response to questions in interview on Today this morning, where he confirmed a) that there was a target for the success rate of mediation and consequent reduction in court cases (although he didn't go on to say what it was) and b) that the compulsory mediation assessment is with a view to moving on to compulsory mediation (no surprise but it's notably absent from the PR doc). All well and good if this new scheme results in an upsurge in the numbers of cases going to mediation and reaching good solutions, but compulsory mediation raises oh so many more anxious questions.

So, there it is. My "mediation assessment and information session" assessment and information session. Is it a bit fighty? I can do compromising and sensitive too, but that would make things terribly dull around here.

I need a bubble bath.