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Researching Reform: People and policies to watch in 2015 - which of our predictions came true?

Date:5 FEB 2016
In January last year, Researching Reform made some predictions about areas of child welfare we felt would make an impact in 2015. From daring pilot schemes, to fee charging McKenzie Friends, to the nation's inquiry into child sexual abuse, our predictions were broad. So what did happen in 2015, and how many of our predictions came true?

Imported from America by award-winning judge Nicholas Crichton, The Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC), a pioneering scheme which helps parents beat addiction and keeps families together, was our project to watch last year. We predicted that mounting pressure from senior members of the Family Court, the hugely cost-effective aspect of the pilot, and the proven results of this kind of work would encourage the government to offer FDAC across the country. We are passionate advocates of this scheme, so we were delighted that, a month after our article was published, the Department for Education confirmed that FDAC would be rolled out nationwide. With funding of £2.5 million, FDAC has now been able to reach families across England and Wales, and has helped to prevent children within those family units being taken into care by providing parents with sophisticated and compassionate support services to get back on their feet and remain addiction-free.

We also forecast that an increasing number of McKenzie Friends would come from the legal sector, taking advantage of the growing area at a time when the Family Court is becoming inundated with self-represented applicants (Litigants in Person). Traditionally, McKenzie Friends have been lay advisors: individuals without a legal background often not charging for their time and offering their support out of a sense of goodwill or moral imperative, with many McKenzies in this context having experience of the Family Court by virtue of representing themselves during their own cases.

In June 2015 the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, called for formal regulation of McKenzie Friends, and lawyers took up the mantle. A large collective of solicitors formed an organisation which, at the time, was called The McKenzie Friends Trade Association (later changing its name to The Society of Professional McKenzie Friends), and created its own code of conduct which it offered as a template to the McKenzie sector at large.

Another area we chose to forecast in our January 2015 article was the fate of the nation's inquiry into child sexual abuse, now called The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA); also sometimes referred to as the Goddard Inquiry, after its Chair, Justice Lowell Goddard. We predicted that the inquiry would take the form of a statutory inquiry, which it became in March 2015 when Theresa May issued a written statement in the House of Commons that same month. We also suggested that the inquiry would likely scrap some of its original panel members, with a view to repairing the inquiry's badly damaged reputation thanks to a string of high-profile mishaps including panel in-fighting, an investigation into leading counsel, and leaked emails. The panel change eventually took place in March 2015, with another string of potential hires announced in June the same year in which Justice Goddard expressed her intention to hire twenty lawyers to help the panel with its work. Since its reincarnation, though, the Inquiry Panel and its Chair have remained tight-lipped, choosing to shun the press and keep engagement on social media to a minimum despite having a dedicated website and Twitter feed.

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Legal aid, too, was one of our policy areas to watch last year, and it took centre stage on several occasions during 2015. Charity 'Rights of Women' mounted a legal challenge questioning the lawfulness of the current legal thresholds in cases where domestic violence was alleged; a challenge we predicted would make its way to the most senior courts in the country. After the challenge was initially rejected by the High Court in 2015, an appeal was launched and later allowed. On 28 January 2016 the first hearing for this challenge took place. Legal aid was not only in the spotlight in 2015, it is here to stay - and its  erosion and impact on families will no doubt feature strongly over the next 12 months, too.

Marriage laws have been a muddle for some time, so it was necessary to include them in any predictions for the last 12 months as consultations and shifting perspectives on marriage itself found their way into the mainstream media in 2014. The government, too, was keen to encourage marriage, and set about designing policies to incentivise the nation. Doing just that in February 2015, the government began to offer a New Marriage Allowance for married couples and those in civil partnerships. The Allowance, effectively a tax break for married couples, was not terribly well received due to the confusing nature of the application process; but this was to be the least of the government's problems last year.

Throughout the course of 2015 a couple were preparing to mount a challenge relating the existing routes available to people wishing to get married. Their case rested on the argument that denying opposite-sex couples the right to enter into a civil partnership instead of a marriage was discriminatory, and, therefore, incompatible with the law. Currently, civil marriages are only available to same-sex couples, but a growing number of heterosexual couples feel that marriage is an outdated and patriarchal practice which does not sit well with contemporary values. This case continues; however, the first set of hearings took place on 19 and 20 January 2016, cementing our prediction that marriage laws would be challenged and boundaries pushed to make choices of union egalitarian, progressive and open to all.

However, our key prediction for 2015 was the view that the voice of the child would disrupt and infiltrate government policy at the highest levels, and inform other areas of law and policy at the same time. The first example of this took place in March last year, when the government published its response to a report written by the Dispute Resolution Advisory Group. The report urged the government to amplify the voice of the child in out-of-court dispute resolution settings, and to make these practices child-inclusive. The government went on to endorse many of the Group's recommendations, but that was not to be the last time senior government officials engaged in the debate over the voice of the child and its significance within the justice system. In July 2015, then-Family Justice Minister Caroline Dinenage addressed the third Family Justice and Young People's Board: Voice of the Child conference. In her speech, Dinenage affirmed that the government would ensure that children's voices were at the heart of the justice system, that their views were properly and carefully recorded, and that children experiencing divorce were given the support they needed. And, in January 2016, children once again have featured in government policy at the highest level, with former Director of Public Prosecutions turned Labout MP Keir Starmer warning that opting out of the European Union - not an area of politics which usually attracts discussion over child welfare - would make it increasingly easy for paedophiles and other potential child abusers to enter Britain undetected.

That child welfare continues to spark debate within a varied array of political issues in 2016 is confirmation that this policy area is rising up the government's agenda, and becoming so much a part of it that child welfare matters can no longer be ignored. From the Children's Commissioner's call to create a Cabinet post for Children's Minister, to the Prime Minister's pledges to focus on families and children (however ill-received or ineffective), all government actions only serve to cement the voice of the child and give it a much-needed place in politics.

Natasha is legal researcher and copywriter working on child welfare projects. She also runs the website www.researchingreform.net. Follow her on Twitter @SobukiRa.

You can read Natasha's A Day in the Life column here.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing.