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Researching reform: 2016 - what we’ve seen and where we’re going

Date:19 DEC 2016

Child welfare has become central to politics in the United Kingdom, and 2016 has offered up some important lessons for the Family Justice System and Government as a result.  

The year began positively with the UK’s leading fathers’ charity becoming the first ever organisation in Europe to provide single fathers with temporary accommodation. This new form of housing has been up and running for a year and has proved hugely successful, with fathers praising the charity for its initiative and the difference it’s made to their lives, and most importantly, their children’s. 

Also in January, a new template for Private Law Orders was produced by President of the Family Division, James Munby. A document which allowed for the fast production of Orders was created to enable families to leave court with the Order in their hands rather than wait for weeks, sometimes months, for the Order itself. Little else is known about these templates one year on - did they make a difference to families, and how many courts actually used them? 

February saw the spotlight shift away from conventional Family Law matters onto alternative legal services. Lay advisers’practices were once again probed, this time by the Judicial Executive Board. The Board suggested England follow Scotland’s lead and ban McKenzie Friends from charging for their help, but concerns were raised over an outright ban preventing them from being reimbursed for travel expenses and food as they travelled to and from court for hearings. 

In a victory for legal aid, the restrictions on access to justice in domestic violence cases were held to be unlawful in principle by the Court of Appeal. The infamous Regulation 33 was called out by The Public Law Project on behalf of Rights Of Women. With mounting pressure on the government to address what was now being called an ultra vires policy, a review of the evidence required to access legal aid was launched. As a temporary measure, the current regulations were also relaxed: individuals in need of legal aid in domestic violence cases could now submit evidence that was older than 24 months, and evidence of financial abuse would also be allowed. 

In this same month, a first of its kind report by Child Rights Network (CRIN), offering global rankings on access to justice for children saw the UK come in at number 18. The research measured how effectively children were able to use the law in their countries to challenge violations of their rights. 

March was another positive month for child welfare and human rights advocates, with the news that Freedom Of Information requests would remain free. The findings by the Freedom Of Information Commission were warmly received by most. Cabinet Office Minister Matt Hancock confirmed that the service was working well and that in order for transparency to spread throughout government Freedom Of Information must remain free. 

With more questions being raised this year over adoption practices, the British Association Of Social Work decided to launch a review into the ethics of adoption in May. This review would be managed by a steering group of adult adoptees and was set to run for a year. We can expect the findings to be published in the Summer of 2017. 

A controversial month, May also saw the government suggest the possibility of making reporting of child abuse compulsory for a defined group of child welfare professionals. The suggestion caused an uproar. Those against the proposal like the Law Society and the social work sector,felt that the duty would increase the current workloads and make it impossible for child protection professionals to complete their cases in reasonable time. Those for, pointed to established research from countries like Australia and America which already have the duty in place, showing that the duty did not slow down social work practice or cause children distress or discomfort. Furthermore, the research highlighted a significant rise in the rate of detection and prevention. 

June was Referendum month. Child welfare and healthcare professionals grew increasingly concerned that leaving the EU would have devastating consequences on the resources available to support vulnerable children and families. Once the vote was cast, professionals found themselves asking how services being bolstered by generous grants from the EU would survive. The government promised to pump funds into the affected sectors as a stop gap, but time will tell how these services will cope in the long run. 

June was also the month that forensic psychologist Professor Jane Ireland was cleared of wrongdoing for her controversial report on the quality of expert witnesses in the Family Court. The report highlighted concerning variations in the training and quality of expert witnesses. The Health and Care Professionals Council exonerated her 2012 report in full. 

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With the events of the first half of the year starting to kick in, the second half of 2016 moved fast and brought with it controversy and change. 

The Child Abuse Inquiry’s Chair, Dame Lowell Goddard resigned in August over what she called a ‘legacy of failure’ at the Inquiry and a new Chair, Professor Jay, who was picked from the Inquiry panel was chosen. It would later be revealed that Goddard left due to extraordinary tensions at the Inquiry which affected several departments. It would only get worse for the Inquiry: within hours of being appointed Chair, Professor Jay suspended the Inquiry’s lead counsel. Ben Emmerson stepped down but was the focus of media attention soon after his resignation, as he found himself at the centre of an assault allegation. In other corners of the Family Law sector, ground breaking ideas were being tested. 

A consultation proposing a Family Law Hub to house research and evidence on family matters was circulated. The team wanted to explore ways in which they could gather available evidence relevant to family justice; offer independent expertise; identify gaps in current research and provide a central source where organisations can access the latest data. The consultation closed in October of this year, though the findings have not yet been published. 

New Prime Minister Theresa May, made some interesting changes to the roles and responsibilities of ministers working on child welfare policy, including the appointment of Liz truss as Secretary of State for Justice and human rights. And in September, Truss outlined her priorities to the Justice Committee, which included promoting right to a fair trial ideals, speeding up the court process and ensuring the most vulnerable have legal representation.

Never far from 2016’s consciousness, children came back into the mainstream media with the arrival in England, of the first child refugees from Calais. Leaked documents revealed the government had refused to work on a strategy to make housing provisions for these children when they arrived, before being sent on to family and friends. As a result, local authorities were none the wiser as to how to deal with these children, many of whom still appear to be waiting to be reunited with family and have since been placed in foster care. The government’s lack of care was condemned as a breach in law by charity Help Refugees, and found itself being threatened with a law suit for failing to comply with the Dubs Amendment. Subsequent articles in the press confirm that many refugee children have now gone missing, and fears of child trafficking and abuse have been raised.

Child protection matters continued to spiral out of control in November, with the Lord Chief Justice publishing his annual report in which he expressed concern at the volume of family law cases before the Family Court. He called for problem solving strategies like those used at the Family Drug and Alcohol Court to try to reduce cases inside the system and help families in the long term. 

Government initiatives also looked to innovative solutions for ongoing problems in the child protection sector. Home Secretary Amber Rudd suggested last month that police officers working on child sexual abuse cases should be specially trained and accredited. The proposed license to practice would bolster trust in the police’s ability to process such cases and send out a message that the skills needed to tackle child sexual abuse were every bit as valuable as other police skills. Rudd’s recommendation came after an inspection carried out on the Metropolitan Police exposed shocking fails by the Met on tackling child sexual abuse. The report found that mistakes had been made in 75% of child sexual abuse cases.

The Child Abuse Inquiry also had its fair share of shocking revelations in November. Former Chair Lowell Goddard refused to give evidence before the Home Affairs Select Committee, and was branded a disgrace by Committee members for her failure to cooperate. Several senior lawyers left the Inquiry, frustrated by the change in tac at the Inquiry from a trial-focused structure which was modified to include other models of intervention at the request of new Chair, Professor Jay. A 600 strong Survivors’ Group also left the Inquiry, angered by a document they had been asked to sign which amounted to a prescribed code of conduct. Tensions at the Inquiry were exposed in a series of letters written by lawyers and panel members, which mentioned significant conflicts between the Home Affairs Committee, Panel members and the Legal team. 

We can expect more of the same in the coming year. The Inquiry will carry out its work, but it will find Survivors and Victims of child sexual abuse by its side, continuously checking and testing for due process, fairness and transparency. This will make the Inquiry’s work slow, but sure. 

The government’s decision to sink more funds into mental health support for children, child protection services and other child welfare focused sectors will offer relief, but given that the problems are much deeper than the government will admit, these funds are likely to disappear fast, and won’t provide these sectors with the opportunity to regenerate. We can expect more child poverty, more problems inside the Family Court and many more children at risk. 

The government will have to entertain better ways of addressing child protection, including better evidence gathering processes, better training for all child welfare professionals, and money saving Family Court models that will actually reduce case loads, prevent families bouncing back into court and reunite children with their parents, wherever possible.