In its final report, published in November, the Family Justice Review panel recommends setting a six-month time limit in child care cases, recruiting more specialist judges to hear cases from start to finish and simplifying the family court structure. Child care cases currently take more than a year to resolve and the courts are struggling with a backlog of cases - about 20,000 children are caught in limbo waiting for a decision on their future.
Former senior civil servant Sir David Norgrove, who chaired the review, said these delays contribute to the average two years and seven months that it takes for children to be adopted. In his foreword, he describes the family justice system as “a system that is not a system, characterised by mutual distrust and a lack of leadership, by incoherence and without solid evidence based knowledge about how it really works. The consequence for children is unconscionable delay that has continued to increase since we began our work”.
The panel’s report recommends there be less reliance on “unnecessary” expert witnesses and reports, and that the courts re-focus on the core issue of whether the child should go into care. Separating couples should be allowed to make their own arrangements for their children and should make greater use of mediation so that they only use the courts where necessary, it says. It recommends that new ‘child arrangements orders’ and ‘parenting agreements’ replace ‘contact’ and ‘residence’, and that a single online and phone help service be introduced to make it easier for people to decide the best way forward. Grandparents should continue to apply to the courts where access to grandchildren is refused.
FLBA chair, Stephen Cobb QC said: “The final report of the Family Justice Review rightly places children and families at the centre of its ambitious proposals for reform. “It is a lengthy and detailed document, to which the FLBA will respond more fully in due course. We are pleased with many of its recommendations which, if implemented, should reduce the scandalous delays which currently exist in the family justice system.
“The FLBA supports the creation of a more effective family justice service, and supports proposals for family judges to have greater leadership and management responsibility for their courts. Judicial continuity in family cases, for which the FLBA lobbied hard during this review, is to be a key feature of new case management culture.
“If we take one key message from these proposals, it is the proposed eradication of delay in the resolution of disputes concerning children. In this respect, the Family Justice Review is right to be concerned by the inevitable rise in the number of unrepresented litigants who will populate the family courts if the legal aid proposals are implemented as drafted.
“While the Review Panel points to various strategies to assist parties in resolving disputes away from the courts, or to assist them while unrepresented in the courts, the panel rightly reflects that these initiatives ‘are by no means a full answer’ to what we believe will be a very serious problem. “The Review rightly recognises the vital role that family barristers and solicitors play in the speedy resolution of cases. This will, however, count for little if the government pursues these cuts. In that event, the pool of talented family lawyers will be significantly diminished at the expense of children, families and the family justice system.”
Stephen Cobb QC
The Family Law Bar Association (FLBA) has welcomed the key points of the Norgrove Review.