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FRG 40th Anniversary

Date:5 JAN 2015
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Solicitor and mediator
Family Law

The below article has been taken from the December 2014 issue of Family Law and made available free of charge. 

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Family Rights Group, a charity which advises families who are involved with children’s services about the care and protection of their children, celebrated its 40th anniversary with a fundraising dinner at the Old Hall, Lincoln’s Inn on 23 October 2014. The event was hosted by the Right Honourable Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division. It was sponsored by a number of sets of chambers together with Jordan Publishing and Resolution. It was attended by many friends and supporters from the judiciary and legal profession and also some of the founding members of the organisation. Keynote speeches were given by Baroness Hale of Richmond and Lord Justice McFarlane, highlighting many significant achievements of the organisation. The text of their speeches is published below.

If you want to find out more about the work of Family Rights Group and how you can support it, see www.frg.org.uk. You can also refer families needing advice to FRG advice line on 0808 801 0366.

The Right Honourable Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division

It is my great pleasure to be the host of this landmark event, the 40th Anniversary fundraising dinner for the Family Rights Group, in such a beautiful setting, surrounded by many old friends and colleagues. Family Rights Group is an important, influential and highly respected organisation in the field of family law. It was founded in 1974 by a group of lawyers, social workers and academics who were concerned about how families were treated when social services were involved with their children.

Drawing on its highly specialised legal and social work expertise amongst the staff, Family Rights Group runs an advice line for families which now advises about 7,000 families per year about their rights and options when social workers make decisions about their children. They run training courses for professionals and they promote policies and practices which draw on families’ strengths, for example family group conferences. They also campaign for improvements to law and practice which aim to strike the right balance between ensuring children are safe and their welfare is promoted with protecting the rights of family members when the state intervenes in their family life. Their impact over four decades has been significant: Baroness Hale will tell you more about their achievements in the early years, particularly how they influenced the Children Act 1989 and Lord Justice McFarlane will tell you of their recent impact on the reforms to the family justice system. As President, I also have first hand experience of being lobbied by them on the need for pre-proceedings guidance to ensure that, in the context of the current reforms, social workers consistently support families to be engaged and find safe family based solutions before proceedings are commenced. They are persuasive and hard to ignore as they talk a lot of sense.

However, the organisation constantly struggles to get enough funding both to meet the ever growing demand from families for their advice and to support their campaigning work, so we hope you will dig deep into your pockets to contribute to their 40th anniversary fundraising appeal.

Baroness Hale of Richmond

This is a joyful occasion. We are here to celebrate 40 years of the Family Rights Group and there is much to be cheerful about in what they have achieved over those 40 years. But if any of us thought that their job might have been done when the Children Act 1989 came into force, we were very, very wrong. Even so, it is worth remembering just how bad things were until not long before the Children Act 1989:

(1) Care proceedings were modelled on criminal proceedings against a juvenile delinquent. So the child was a party to the proceedings but the parents were not. It was assumed that the parents would represent the child, but their interests might be very different, as the tragedy of Maria Colwell showed.

(2) Local authorities could assume parental rights over the children in their so-called ‘voluntary care’ simply by the councillors passing a resolution to do so, without consulting or involving the parents or the family at all. Their right to challenge this pre-emptive strike in a juvenile court was not much use.

(3) Local authorities had no obligation to consult the child or the family about their decisions, for example, as to where the child should be placed, or whether to keep the child in touch with her family. There was no way of challenging even the total refusal of all contact between them, until a limited right was introduced in the 1980s.

(4) Wider family members, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, had no part to play in all of this. They were not consulted, had very little opportunity to make their voices heard, and were generally thought to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. It was Family Rights Group which recognised the special position of grandparents among the people who consulted them, which led to the setting up of the Grandparents’ Federation. But that was only one of their achievements. Led by their first Director, Jo Tunnard, and Legal Adviser, Mary Ryan, they played a vital part in changing all this. They, with others, got the House of Commons interested in children in care. This led to the Commons 1984 Report recommending a comprehensive review of the jumble of laws we had then. And this led to a joint venture, between a team from Department of Health, led by the wise and wily Rupert Hughes, and a team from the Law Commission, led by me, which produced the Review of Child Care Law and this eventually led to the 1989 Act.

Throughout the 1980s the headlines screamed in two directions. There were terrible scandals, such as those of Jasmine Beckford, Kimberley Carlile and Tyra Henry, where vulnerable children had been returned to or left at home to die at the hands of their parents or, more often, their parents’ partners. Social workers were not doing enough to protect them. There were studies showing that, if a child was in the so-called voluntary care of a local authority for 6 months or more, the chances of that child ever returning home were slim, but not enough was being done either to find a permanent new family for her or to find a way of returning her safely to her family.

This was not a climate in which it was easy to argue that children were members of families, that the whole family was important to them and that the family might be a valuable resource in providing the care which for whatever reason the parents could not provide. Then, perhaps fortunately from this point of view, along came the Cleveland Child Abuse scandal. This showed that social workers and other professionals could sometimes be over-enthusiastic in taking children away from their families and pointed up all the weaknesses in the legal position, including that children could be removed without notice to a place of safety and kept there for up to 28 days with nothing that they or the parents could do to challenge it. The European Court of Human Rights also contributed some important decisions emphasising the need for procedural safeguards when interfering in family life. The climate swung in favour of law reform.

Fighting the families’ corner throughout all this turmoil was the Family Rights Group. They were not naïve or unrealistic. They knew that some children had to be removed from their families and that some of those needed new families to replace them. But they also knew that the link between family problems and family poverty was still strong – they were, after all, an off-shoot from the Child Poverty Action Group, which is also still going strong. They knew what was wrong with the law and with some of the practice. They provided a strong and informed voice which was a huge help in bringing about the reform of the law.

With the Children Act so many things changed, not only the law, but the professional practices and attitudes which went with it, the training of social workers (to which FRG’s Celia Atherton made such an important contribution), the development of the guardian ad litem service, and the involvement of specialist lawyers. One might have thought that the need for a Family Rights Group had gone. But of course it had not. All they do today is ample evidence of that.

But what of the future? The old certainty I had throughout my professional life, that things were getting better, and were going to go on getting better, has been knocked apart by recent events. I don’t mean the reforms to the family justice system, which seem to me from my ivory tower to be quite a good thing, and possibly not yet radical enough. I mean the reduction in those children’s services which might prevent these problems arising in the first place and allow children to stay and to develop safely with their families. I mean the reduction in access to legal services and expert advice which is a vital part of making the right decisions for vulnerable children. I mean the acceptance that child poverty is and will be a continuing reality. We know that times are hard and savings have to be made, but somehow we did not expect that these would be made at the expense of the most vulnerable children in our society.

I also mean the turmoil that still exists between the child savers and the family savers. Both of course are important. There is clearly still a great deal of work for the Family Rights Group to do. Perhaps one of these days they, like the Child Poverty Action Group, will think of intervening in a case before the Supreme Court? I can think of one or two cases in which I would have loved to hear the voice of their experience.
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Lord Justice McFarlane

Picture the scene: it is 26 May 2010 in a small upstairs meeting room in the Methodist Central Hall, a suitably independent but convenient location for the very first session of the newly formed Family Justice Review under the Chairmanship of David Norgrove. The panel of five, of which I was one, had asked for three or four well informed, free thinking and independent family justice insiders to attend a free flowing session designed to identify some of the key themes that the Review would need to address. The Family Rights Group, in the form of Bridget Lindley, was selected to be part of that small group and thus began a series of contributions by FRG to the review process over the following 18 months which were, for me, of the utmost value.

As you will know, the Norgrove Review Panel heard from a very large number of individuals and agencies, but I think that it is fair to say that no other contributor could speak from the clear, family focussed perspective of the FRG. This is not to criticise any of the other witnesses from whom we heard, many of whom were excellent and of great value in our deliberations. But it is the fact that most of those working within the family justice system have, almost as a natural consequence of their role, a bias or perspective which favours one component in the family justice cocktail at the expense of focus upon others. Thus the father’s groups speak up for fathers, the mother’s groups (and there are some) represent their constituents. The social workers are defensive of local authority practice and procedure; the lawyers inevitably have a trial based experience which disables them from giving equal prominence to out of court interventions; the ‘Voice of the Child’ contributors seek to prioritise that important agenda; the judges, who do have a more balanced perspective, are inevitably concerned with process and resources; and so on and so on.

Each contributor, be they individual or agency, had an agenda which favoured one or other part of the whole picture. Many, as we observed in our two reports, were openly and highly critical of value of the contributions that other categories of professional could bring to the key task of helping to achieve a satisfactory resolution where there is concern for the welfare of a child. For me, as someone who had passed most of my professional life within the family justice system, who thought that he knew it and knew how it ticked, these contributions, repeated time and time again by different voices in various settings, were astonishing in their negativity. I had been, for example, totally unaware of the degree to which many in the social work profession questioned the role that judges and lawyers should have in determining the best plan for a child in need. That is only one example; I could quote many for differing perspectives.

I found the experience of being exposed to such views to be of profound importance in understanding just how much the so called ‘Family Justice System’ was not in fact a ‘system’ at all or, if it was a system, just how highly dysfunctional that system was. We found that there was, to use a hackneyed phrase, a ‘bunker’ mentality in which each group, be they professional or those speaking for fathers, mothers or children, attributed high value to the part that they played in the resolution of a child protection case, but afforded little or no merit to the contribution made by any other group. In its Final Report the Norgrove Panel summed the situation up in this way:

‘[T]he relationship between local authorities and courts can verge on the dysfunctional. For the system to work better it is not acceptable for each group to sit on the sidelines and criticise the other. A failure in one part of the system must be seen to be a failure of all. Courts and local authorities, and other professionals, should work together to tackle this at a national and local level.’ (Final Report, para 3.46)
The reason for reminding you of this sorry, but important, experience is to point up the standalone exception to the bunkered and sectional thinking that we encountered; the exception came in the form of the contributions that we received from the Family Rights Group.

It was, in my recollection, only the FRG that was able to bring a truly ‘whole family’ perspective to the fore. By having ‘Family Rights’, as opposed to ‘Children’s Rights’ or ‘Parents’ Rights’, as its focus, the FRG was able to offer an overview, both of the law and of social work practice, from an altitude of an altogether different order. As I have already said, but I now repeat and stress, this is to a large degree nothing more than the natural consequence of the sectional nature of other bodies and agencies, on the one hand, and the natural consequence of the all encompassing word ‘Family’ which is at the centre of the FRG’s ethos. My reason for flagging this difference up is not at all to denigrate the role of any other person or body; indeed it is 100% certain that if I had been a witness before the Norgrove Panel for the Bar or the judiciary, rather than a Panel member, I too would have spoken as many of my former colleagues and present judicial siblings did. My reason for flagging the difference up is to highlight the unique and highly valuable vantage point that FRG occupies from which it can, and does, offer an holistically based insight into the problems that face us all.

By now, being people who live and breathe clichés, you will all be thinking: ‘fine words butter no parsnips’, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’, ‘one swallow doesn’t make a summer’, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ – this latter being the thought of one whose attention has already wandered somewhat from my theme! So, to some detail: Baroness Hale has already described her impressions of the early years of the FRG; it is no surprise that the organisation has proved to be so effective in recent times given the strong and effective work that it has been known for throughout the past 40 years.

Part of the strength and depth of FRG’s knowledge of family life and how the system may impact upon it comes out of its day to day engagement with families via the FRG telephone Advice Line, which has been a feature of the organisation since the late 1980’s. Families from all over the country have access to a specialist adviser about their rights and options in the event of social service intervention. In this way the FRG now advises 7,000 people per year. The process is, however, a two-way communication and, as well as giving advice, the advisers gain a first hand knowledge of how the system is functioning throughout the country on a case by case basis.

Contact is also available directly from the FRG website where some 220,000 people each year access some form of advice. An independent evaluation recently found that 84% of family and friends carers who had received support from FRG advice and advocacy services said that FRG had helped the family to stay together – 84%!

A key means of enabling families to have a voice and take a lead in making plans for their children has been the introduction of Family Group Conferences into the UK in 1991, led by Celia Atherton and the FRG. Drawing on the positive impact FGCs had had in the Maori community in New Zealand, particularly in relation to marshalling family support and finding safe alternative family placements, for children on the edge of care, she saw the potential contribution FGCs could make in the UK and invited some socials workers over from New Zealand to train a small group of UK social workers on how the model worked. The importance of Family Group Conferences was at the forefront of the FRG’s submissions to the Norgrove Review and we had no difficulty in accepting those submissions and recommending that the benefits of FGC’s should be more widely recognised and their use should be considered prior to the commencement of any public law court proceedings.

That recommendation has now been taken forward, again as a result of focussed lobbying from FRG, with the result that the importance of FGC’s is now embedded in the revised Volume 1 of the Children Act Guidance which states that local authorities should consider referring a family to a FGC if they believe there is a possibility the child may not be able to remain with their parents, or in any event before a child becomes looked after unless this would be a risk to the child (para [24]). Used properly, this requirement in the guidance, which results directly from FRG’s focus on the topic, will obviate the need for proceedings in some cases and, even where proceedings are commenced, will have provided the necessary ‘wake up call’ to extended family members at an early stage.

This is but one example of the effectiveness of FRG’s work in consistently supporting family members to influence legal and policy changes by explaining what change they perceive is needed directly to those who have the power to make such changes. Another major example is the long-term campaign, first to identify, and then to raise the profile of, the 200 to 300,000 children who are currently being raised by carers who are not their parents but are either other family members or friends. I could go on, but I am sure that you have got the point: the Family Right’s Group delivers and delivers very effectively on a range of issues of great importance to families.

For this organisation to be as effective as it is, the quality of those who, from time to time, are working within it is of crucial importance. Baroness Hale has spoken from her knowledge of the earlier years. For my part, my experience of FRG has been in connection with those currently at the helm, Cathy Ashley and Bridget Lindley, together with the 23 or so staff who support them. All who know the work of Cathy and Bridget will, I strongly suspect, agree with me in saying that the important mission of the Family Rights Group could not be in better hands. Submissions and proposals put forward by the FRG are always characterised by well informed and insightful analysis, which betrays a high level of intellectual engagement with the issues, and, despite the charm and measured nature of the manner of delivery, are backed up by a steely resolve to persuade those in power to deliver whatever change is being argued for. Individually and as a team, Cathy and Bridget are extremely impressive and, more importantly, extremely effective in moving the agenda forward for the benefit of families. And they have both shown significant commitment to the organisation, demonstrated by their length of service – Cathy has been Chief Executive for the last 10 years and Bridget has provided legal advice at FRG for the last 26 years, for which she was recognised by the Queen in the award of an OBE in the New Years Honours 2014.

I am very pleased to be present this evening to bid ‘Happy 40th Birthday’ to the FRG. But, as we all know, or at least hope, the age of 40 is but a milestone; it is not the finishing line. The need for the Family Rights Group remains as important today as it did in 1974. There is still much to do. The number of families contacting the advice line has more than tripled in the last 7 years. This includes a staggering 74% rise in domestic violence child protection enquiries in the last year alone. The campaign to achieve Family Group Conferences as the norm is by no means over. Campaigns to support family and friends care, to highlight the need for parents to give informed consent when a child in s 20 accommodation is placed in a fostering for adoption placement and on other fronts continue. In wishing the FRG a very ‘Happy Birthday’, as I do, I also look to the future and wish them well in their important endeavour in the years that are to come.