Responding to the recommendations of David Norgrove’s family justice review, the MoJ said it will set a six-month time limit on care and adoption cases, although three month extensions may be granted in exceptional cases. Currently, the 20,000 children caught up in care proceedings each year wait an average of 55 weeks before their future is decided.
The MoJ will bring forward legislation emphasising the importance of children maintaining parental relationships where that is safe and in the interests of the child.
It says it plans to restore public confidence that the courts recognise both parents’ roles.
However, any legislation will recognise that this does not imply an equal division of time with children.
The Bar Council and Family Law Bar Association (FLBA) urged the government to take its time and not rush to legislate.
Nicholas Cusworth QC, chair of the FLBA, said: “On shared parenthood, we agree with the Family Justice Review’s finding that, learning lessons from the Australian experience, legislating on this issue risks creating the perception that there is a right to substantially shared or equal time, for both parents.
“It is already widely understood and applied by the courts that children benefit from having a relationship with both parents and legislation would be unnecessary and may do more harm than good. The government must consider this with the greatest of care.”
Cusworth said he supported swifter resolution of care cases, but that the child’s welfare must always be paramount.
“There is a perception that the courts are currently allowing parents who risk losing their children too much of an opportunity to argue their case, allowing delay which may be contrary to the best interests of the child,” he said. However, a “six month guillotine” could create a parental backlash, he warned.
“The firmer the requirement to finish in six months, the more likely it is that decisions will be taken without the best available evidence, in an area where any mistake is potentially disastrous for the child concerned.”
The MoJ will also require separating couples to attend a mediation session before they can take their case to court. In addition it will encourage parenting agreements to include grandparents, reduce the use of expert reports in family cases, reduce the amount of time judges spend scrutinising care plans, transfer the court social work agency Cafcass to the MoJ, and simplify the family justice system by creating a single family court across England and Wales.
The Government has indicated that their aim is to legislate for a six month time limit to complete public law care and supervision cases.