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Researching Reform: Child welfare people and policies to watch in 2015

Date:5 JAN 2015
2014 has, for family law at least, been a year of hard truths and hard knocks, affecting partners, children and practitioners alike. This sobering state of affairs is to be expected inside a sector embattled by widely-contested political reforms, and enduring an even deeper resource crisis. Challenges questioning legal aid policy and concerns over the Family Court’s future in a fast changing landscape have also made an uneven playing field foggy with procedural ambiguity.

But if 2014 was the year that Family Law bottomed out and bared all to the world, 2015 is set to be the year of the pioneer, taking those reforms, suggestions and nascent policy murmurs and turning them into workable practices inside the system.

Having already proven itself as the only serious contender to the current court structure in place for vulnerable families, the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) continues to set the standard for what a functional, effective public family law court looks and feels like. It is to date the only court process on offer that has a significant impact on families, keeping them together and reducing parental drug and alcohol addiction. With a rocky start (the government has been slow to fund this enterprise fully), FDAC has now been endorsed by the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby. This new alliance between the President and Nick Crichton, founder of the FDAC movement here (it is a US import), and a well respected figure in the family law community, is likely to put pressure on the government to consider rolling out these courts nationwide. The fact that Family Drug and Alcohol Courts save our government a not insignificant amount of money, should be enough of a hook to entice policy makers to come to the table.

Fee-charging McKenzie friends too, will be ‘ones to watch’ in 2015, not least of all because a growing number of them appear to be lawyers in laymen’s clothing. How this new development is viewed by the Law Society is still unclear, but one thing looks certain: as bottom lines at law firms continue to languish, lawyers aplenty will be heading into the McKenzie sector to seek remunerated work in this widening field of opportunity. Regulation too, will be a buzz word for 2015. The Legal Consumer Services Panel set those wheels in motion last year with their survey on fee charging McKenzies. They view this sector as an emerging market, and one that shows no sign of shrinking. The Legal Consumer Services Board though, may well find itself mostly regulating lawyers in the sector, a paradox which may pave the way for a new modus operandi when it comes to the delivery of legal services in the twenty-first century. But not before further confusions over dual office and which standards to apply for each caseload rear their ugly heads. As a result, Lord Neuberger and Sir Nicholas Wall may well have to update their current guidelines on the practice.

In dire need of updating, or scrapping if the reports are anything to go by, is the Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry. Given the painful history it has had with unsustainable Chairs, and panel members getting into hot water over various indiscretions and unsavoury connections, this Inquiry in 2015 has to shape shift away from its 2014 demons and will, most likely, be born again as a Statutory Inquiry, with some new, if not all new, panel members who are palatable to the public and overseeing politicians. It would be a good omen too, if the panel members knew how to interact well with survivors of abuse and represented Britain in all its ethnic and professional diversity – nothing less than a mirror reflection of our society will do. Home Secretary Theresa May has the onerous task of ensuring that this last chance to assemble her army isn’t wasted.

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The stakes are high too in the latest challenge to our current legal aid policy. Rights of Women, a women’s charity focused on helping women find the legal support they need, challenged Regulation 33 last year, the domestic violence evidence criteria which, they argued, denied vulnerable women legal protection from abuse. The High Court gave the charity permission to challenge the lawfulness of the legal aid provisions four months ago and if the Court takes their argument to its natural, and indisputable conclusion in 2015, we will see a government review of this deleterious policy and, hopefully, a new way forward for victims of domestic violence.

Marriage laws should make the news in 2015, and reduce drafters to tears as what is now an unsightly tangle in tying the knot becomes visible. Outdated marriage laws coupled with supplemental marriage laws for heterosexual couples, same sex couples and royal couples have made marriage regulations messy and multiform rather than clear and uniform. No one is quite sure at this point whether they’re protesting the lack of clarity surrounding civil marriages, partnerships, location and venue because fairness demands it or because romance decries it, but if the latest consultation is an indicator of things to come, this year should be a fascinating one for all things ceremonial.

But of all the things to watch out for in 2015, there is one movement which is set to outshine all the others, as the government continues to tighten its financial belt and families feel the brunt of dwindling resources inside the sector (and get sent packing to look for support elsewhere). The Voice of the Child, on which so much of the family justice system rests, has historically piped up every now and then, but adult ears have always strained to hear it. As the now-defunct Voice of the Child Sub-Group called upon it to help lay out guidelines for judges talking to children in 2010, it has since travelled over to Cafcass Headquarters. There, the Young People’s Board , a collective of children working together to help Cafcass evolve child friendly policies, has amplified that voice and it has gained a new lease of life. Their Voice of the Child Conference last July was a game changer, attracting for the first time, senior politicians like Justice Minister Simon Hughes, who pledged to make the UK a more child-friendly place. Those promises will feel renewed pressure to materialise, as recent reports indicate that childrenin care are still being failed by the system, either because they are ignored indecision making processes or fail to get the support they need to blossom.

Children then and child-centered policy, may well be the major disrupters of 2015. It’s a brave new year, fuelled by bold policy, and powered by pioneers of all ages. Let’s hope great ideas are gathered and implemented this year and that the family justice system can finally make its way.

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