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Creating a supportive and therapeutic family justice system

Date:17 FEB 2016
On 11 February 2016 Bristol Civil and Family Justice Centre hosted a further free seminar to discuss reforms to family justice and effective pre-proceedings programmes and practice. The panel consisted of HHJ Wildblood QC, Anthony Douglas (Chief Executive of Cafcass) and Sir David Norgrove, Chairman of the Family Justice Board.

Lucy Reed of St John's Chambers opened the session with a brief reminder of some of the key services available to people in the area, including the family court information website and the recently launched Pro Bono Advice Scheme, details of which can be accessed by contacting the Bristol Personal Support Unit.

Judge Wildblood gave an overview in respect of his public law proceedings which, he explained, have seen a marked increase from October 2015 in his DFJ area. Judge Wildblood believed this was in no way incidental to the judgment given in Re N (Children) (Adoption: Jurisdiction) [2015] EWCA Civ 1112, whereby the local authority were criticised for their misuse of s 20 of the Children Act 1989. October 2015 saw twice the number of public law cases than the previous month, and numbers have remained high into 2016. In addition, Judge Wildblood noted the reduction in staff levels in the Bristol court has led to an average public law case currently taking 32.2 weeks in the last quarter.

Judge Wildblood identified four key areas which he believes to be crucial for progress to be made, namely communication, collaboration, change (where necessary) and commitment to the public. In respect of private law, 80% of cases now feature a litigant in person (LIP) and concern remains high as to whether these people are being provided with sufficient support.

A final point related to the need for the judiciary to receive feedback on the consequences of their decisions. He considers it vital that judges know what actually happens on the ground once their involvement has come to an end, as a way to learn more about the impact of the decisions they are making each day. For more on this, see Judith Masson, 'Developing judgment: feedback and learning in family justice' at [2015] Fam Law 1219.

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Sir David Norgrove identified positive points that have been observed since the Family Justice Review. Communication between the judiciary, practitioners and the public has improved without threat to judicial independence. The average public law case is now taking 28 weeks where previously it was 55. There is, he said, a gain in efficiency, and less expenditure and time wasted.

Sir David accepted, however, that success has not been mirrored in the private law arena, which has seen disappointing mediation levels and soaring LIP numbers with not enough being done to help self-represented parties cope.

There is a need to bring the justice system closer to its clients and to make it more relevant to them by formulating ways of catering to their specific needs. For example, women who go through repeat removals of their children through care proceedings or people that make repeated child arrangements applications as opposed to people who only come to court once. The question was posed how best to deal with these sorts of issues.

Support was referred from sources such as the Pause project which encourages women to build their self-esteem and helps them to move on and break the cycle of having repeated instances of children being removed. Family Group Conferencing, family therapy and the Family Drug and Alcohol Court are also ways in which the Family Justice system reaches out to the community and encourages therapeutic measures.

Regarding private law, Sir David said there must be pathways that lead people away from making court applications in ways that are appropriate for them and their circumstances and make more readily available web-based support, telephone support and signposting to therapy.

Anthony Douglas confirmed the system is under pressure and cases take a huge amount of emotion. He discussed instances where feedback has been given by children who said the orders made in respect of their lives simply did not work for them. Family justice concerns people in difficult transitions and practitioners are constantly working with the grain of movement. Core resources he mentioned included buddying systems to provide support; selecting the right quality of help; collaborative processes; and education about vital topics.

He spoke in greater detail about Cafcass Plus, the pilot which sees the organisation working with social workers and families at an earlier stage to help relations and communication. The emphasis was strongly focused towards provision of services early in pre-proceedings stages as a method of intervening and, in the best case scenario, avoiding the need for the matter to get to court.

Further discussions involved models used in other jurisdictions which see settlement conferences taking place and pre- or in-proceedings negotiations used as an alternative to hearings. Further debate centred around the (perhaps controversial) idea that legal representatives should be paid in accordance with the results they achieve rather than the hearing they attend as a way of recognising who the 'champions of safe settlement' are.

The emphasis was firmly placed on looking to the future, working together and getting behind reform with a view towards a more Litigant in Person-friendly, supportive and therapeutic environment. In the words of Judge Wildblood: there is more we can do.