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Young Lawyers - Kate Gomery: Get a Grip - Reform of Family Justice

Date:6 JUL 2011

Kate GomerySo, let's take stock. Over the last couple of months as family lawyers, we have had: the Family Proceedings Rules 2010, the Family Justice Review Interim Report, the Munro Report, the Private Family Law Representation Scheme, the Family Advocacy Scheme and the Legal Aid (etc) Bill. This week there was news that the newly appointed Adoption "tzar" has recommended to ministers that the whole adoption process be speeded up and dramatically altered in other ways.

What have I missed? 

The problem with all this, is that despite virtually everyone agreeing that there is need for reform within the family justice system, there is currently so much "reform" being proposed, without any idea of a comprehensive overview, the effect is that no one really knows what's expected to happen (or when) with confusing, and sometimes contradictory, implications.

When most people say reform is needed, often what they mean is that the Courts, Cafcass, LSC, Local Authorities et al need increased funding and resources to make the basics of the current system more effective, streamlined  and user-friendly. With the reform that's being suggested, the worst case scenario is that we will be left with a system which comprises a hotch-potch of procedures and legislation held together by an inadequate budget, which, more often than not, will have to be navigated by the parties themselves with no legal representation.

A good family justice system is one that supports families with practical and legal help at (what is often) the most traumatic times of their lives. The ideal resolution is, of course, one that ensures that the difficulties are addressed and resolved with as little conflict as possible. But the fact of the matter is we do not live in a world where most people are emotionally equipped on their own to deal in a practical and rational way with the implications of family breakdown.

I work in Liverpool (which, incidentally has the largest proposed cut to it's Legal Aid budget despite official figures showing it is the most deprived part of England) and many of my clients' backgrounds and circumstances mean that the prospect of them interacting in a civil and objective manner with their exes over such emotive issues as where their children should live and arrangements for contact, either within or outside of the court system, is simply not a realistic one.

Without patronising my clients, I simply cannot see how they will cope without legal support in applying for or responding to applications made through the courts. Crucially, I think that many of them are simply incapable of showing the courts the respect they expect and I suspect it will not become unusual to have hearings descend into all-out slanging matches.

The Government needs to take control of the situation, and soon. There needs to be a single body (with input from people with a real understanding of how the system operates) to collate and consider the recommendations of the various Reports, Reviews, Recommendations and Bills. If the system can't be improved without putting additional funds in (rather than taking them out) then that point needs to be rammed home to those at the very top as quickly and as clearly as possible. 

Kate Gomery has recently qualified as a family law solicitor. She works at Heaney Watson in Liverpool where she is exposed to all types of family law work but particularly publicly funded family law cases. Prior to qualification Kate spent several years doing general crime and then serious fraud work.  She trained at Pannone in Manchester.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.