Family Justice Board Newsletter
In September, the National Family Justice Board circulated to all Local FJB’s the following newsletter, which provides a comprehensive update on the progress of recent changes within the family justice system, and plans for further reform. The newsletter is reproduced below and is highly recommended reading.
September always feels like the start of a new year, I suppose because we remember our school days. The risk is that minds start to turn to new things. But the clear need in family justice is to continue the progress of the past year, above all in public law.
The Government summary of what has been achieved since the Family Justice Review has a link to it in this newsletter, and all should feel proud of that. The obvious measure is case lengths in public law, where the reduction has been dramatic – a major and very welcome achievement. We aren’t though yet where we want to be, and things could too easily slip back. The top priority in the coming months has to be that slower areas catch up, and that faster areas embed the new ways of working and make them second nature.
I say this because there’s a clear sense of attention turning to private law and the pressures there. Attention to private law is right, but it must not be at the expense of this other priority.
In private law I know there has been concern that not enough is being done to help mediation and litigants in person. It has taken time, but work behind the scenes is starting to deliver greater support. The Government has now responded to the work of a mediation task force that I chaired, involving mediators, academics and others. The result will be some extra money for mediation and a programme to promote dispute resolution outside court, some of which is already underway.
For litigants in person a suite of materials is now available on Gov.UK and elsewhere, described in this newsletter. This is a start, and we are learning from experience here and overseas what more is needed.
Finally I am sure everyone welcomes Simon Hughes’ announcement about hearing the voice of the child. Now the task is to make that a reality.
With good wishes for another year of progress.
Family Justice Board
Voice of the Child
Simon Hughes announced recently that it will be the normal practice, that, from the age of 10, children and young people involved in public or private law family justice proceedings before the courts will have access to the judge, in an appropriate way which reflects their feelings and wishes to make clear their views as to what is the best resolution of the family dispute in their interest. Children and young people of 10 and over will therefore be given the chance to make clear their views in person or if preferred in another way.
In addition, the Family Mediation Task Force recommended establishing a small sub-group to look at how the Voice of the Child could be heard more effectively in family mediation. The Group will also review training, registration and supervision of mediators in this field and ensure that the Family Justice Young People’s Board Charter is updated to include mediation. The objective being to ensure that children’s voices are heard in the dispute resolution process to arrive at a position where children and young people of 10 years old and over also have appropriate access to mediators in cases which affect them.
Family Mediation Task Force
The Family Mediation Task Force Report was published on the Dialogue page and the Ministry of Justice published a response on 20 August that outlined the Government’s plan to fund the first single session of mediation in all cases where one of the people involved is already legally aided. This funding will be for a fixed period of 3 years with 6 monthly reviews and it is expected to be implemented in autumn 2014. We believe this will help engage both parties in the dispute resolution process, particularly where one person is not eligible for legal aid and would have had to pay for the mediation session, which was previously identified as a major barrier to couples choosing mediation.
LFJBs are asked to canvass their local mediators to establish the impact of this initiative as well as the general trend towards mediation and if possible to provide real numbers on mediations in their areas. It would also be helpful to know if local courts are enforcing the requirement to consider mediation and that applications are being appropriately screened.
C100: Court form to nudge private law children applicants to consider mediation
People applying for child arrangements to the Family Court are to be nudged to first consider mediation at the point when they are about to complete an application to court.
As part of ongoing work to raise awareness of family mediation and its benefits at crucial points of contact made with the public, a new cover sheet is being developed by the Ministry of Justice policy, communications, behavioural insight and design teams for the C100. The new cover sheet will ask those applying for a child arrangements order, a section 8 Children Act 1989 order, or to vary whether they have considered family mediation first and explain the advantages it offers.
Taking the form of a tick-list, which people will need to complete before going on to complete the form, the cover sheet will also reinforce that legal aid is available for family mediation. The idea is to prompt people to consider family mediation, before they have started to complete an application form to start court proceedings; a point when people are likely to have already committed to the idea of going to court, psychologically. Use of a tick list is a contrasting approach to a simple information sheet, which people are more likely to see as guidance and simply discard.
The cover note will be stapled to the front of the C100, so that it can be torn off by court staff before being passed to the judge (and emailed to Cafcass), so that the essential information the judge wants to see will remain on the front page.
Pilot on DNA, drug and alcohol testing underway
The Ministry of Justice have implemented a pilot scheme to provide DNA, drug and alcohol tests in all private law family cases (where a test is deemed necessary) in the Designated Family Judge areas of Bristol and Taunton. The pilot commenced on 16 June and is being funded by the Ministry of Justice and administered locally by Cafcass and the judiciary. The tests will be delivered by a third-party provider, Oxford Family Mediation. MoJ Analytical Services, with the support of Cafcass and HMCTS, will lead on an evaluation of the pilot.
The broad aims of the evaluation are to provide evidence on how the pilot was implemented and worked in practice, including any perceived benefits and challenges and impact on the court. In addition to data collection that is already in place, MoJ intends to run qualitative workshops in the pilot areas and a comparator area to seek views of key stakeholders (including LFJB representatives) for their views and experiences of the pilot. The main output of the evaluation will be a written report combining the quantitative data and qualitative research findings. The findings will inform internal MoJ discussions on whether the funding for DNA, drug or alcohol testing should be rolled out nationally. The provisional timetable is to publish a final report by February 2015.
Up to the 12th of August there have been 36 cases in the pilot area involving 59 children: 18 drugs tests; 8 alcohol tests; 5 drugs and alcohol tests; and 5 DNA tests. Eleven cases were heard in the County Court and 25 in the magistrates.
According to the most recent published figures, the average time for the disposal of a care or supervision application has continued to fall, reaching 32.0 weeks in January-March 2014, while the median time to make a disposal in a case was 26.3 weeks. This is very welcome, and reflects the intense efforts and commitment of a great many professionals, both during the PLO pilot in 2013 and subsequently. However, there continue to be considerable regional variations in performance, with some areas experiencing a significantly higher average disposal time.
While other parts of the family justice system may be the focus of reform – and news headlines – in 2014, we should not lose sight of the 26 week time limit and the importance of achieving further significant improvements in disposal times. Otherwise, there remains a significant risk that the gains we have seen so far will not be sustained.
Litigants in Person
We are grateful to all Local Family Justice Boards who responded to the recent survey on provision of support for Litigants in Person (LiPs). The responses show that, in many local areas, initiatives to assist LiPs have been established and are working well. However, we recognise that more needs to be done and survey responses set out a range of activities that the Centre should consider. Many of these suggestions complement the results of work that we have already completed to look at international comparators and other research evidence on the support needs of LiPs. All of this evidence is contributing to work we are currently doing to look at the provision of better information and advice for separating parents. In particular we are working with DWP to improve on-line information so that fewer couples use the courts when their disputes can be better resolved by other means. For those seeking to represent themselves in court we are improving the content of gov.uk’s ‘representing yourself in court’ web page, which signposts to key sources of existing and trusted information and have provided funding to, amongst others, the Royal Courts of Justice Citizens Advice Bureau to develop and expand ‘CourtNav’ (an application which helps selected users complete applications to the courts in an effective way); to AdviceNow to update a number of their guides; and to Personal Support Unit to provide free independent assistance to people facing proceedings without legal representation in civil and family courts. A leaflet (CB7) has been produced to give further guidance on what is expected when coming to court, and what court proceedings will be like. We are continuing to look at areas where court based support can be improved and we expect to be able to announce further initiatives very soon.
Family Justice Review updates published
The Government update on progress of the Family Justice System since the Family Justice Review was published on 20th August. An update on the progress of all 134 Recommendations is given, and a Childrens version is available. The publications can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/whats-happened-since-the-family-justice-review-a-brighter-future-for-family-justice
The FJB Annual Report 2013-14 was also published on the same day.