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Sandra Davis' Week: The cost of reform

Date:7 APR 2011

Sandra DavisDavid Norgrove's interim report on the family justice system makes for sombre reading.

It is, I agree, "shocking" that cases involving children take too long to resolve. Moreover, the authors of the report rightly predict that current levels of delay in the system are only set to rise.

No one who is involved in the family justice system can seriously argue against the suggestion that reform is necessary. There is likely to be broad consensus that most of the 82 recommendations contained in the report are entirely sensible.

Careful reading of the report however shocks in more ways than one. Page 184 of the report contains the stark acknowledgement that "unit costs in the current system are largely a mystery".

The problem this presents for reformers is that without knowing what the current system costs it is impossible to assess the future cost arising from the reforms being proposed and whether they represent value for money.

Whilst some of the report's recommendations will be largely cost neutral, many will be hugely expensive to implement. The call for an integrated family justice IT system, for example, may be well reasoned but will find few supporters at the Treasury. Some readers will recall that the upgrade of the NHS computer system cost the taxpayer £12.6 billion while the CSA computer upgrade cost more than £250 million to implement. The money required for this kind of structural investment just isn't available any more.

Indeed, the political imperative behind the Family Justice Review was to reduce the direct and indirect cost to the public purse of parental conflict, not to increase it.

The authors of the interim report may be able to point to cost savings through efficiencies, better use of judicial time and general savings by steering parents away from the courts and into "dispute resolution services". Ultimately, though, the implementation cost of the Norgrove recommendations are bound to far outstrip any immediate savings.

That's not to say that the recommendations aren't laudable. Litigation of a parental dispute suggests that at least one parent is unable to separate his or her needs from those of the children involved. Any reforms that can assist parents to move forward without involving their children in an intrusive process are to be applauded.

In all of this the reality is that a huge tension exists between the reformers and the paymasters. The Family Justice Review has concluded that wholesale redesign of the family justice system is required to offer better outcomes for children and families. Meanwhile the Government is pushing through its austerity measures to reduce the amount it spends, including on the direct and indirect cost of parental conflict.

Having identified the systemic problems that plague the family justice system, the final recommendations of the Family Justice Review will deserve proper consideration. The real risk is that when David Norgrove's final report is published it will be applauded and then quietly shelved. 

Sandra Davis is a Partner and Head of Family at Mishcon de Reya. She is a member of the firm's management board, a Fellow of the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the author of International Child Abduction (Sweet & Maxwell, 1993) and a member of the Lord Chancellor's Child Abduction Panel. In 2009 she was shortlisted in the Citywealth Magic Circle Awards as a Leading Lawyer.

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