In response to the recommendations made by the independent Family Justice Review Panel, Ministers have outlined their plans to reform the system to help strengthen parenting, reduce the time it takes cases to progress through the courts, and simplify the family justice system.
The major reforms are outlined below:
Shared parenting for the best interests of the child:
- The changes in education and the introduction of parenting agreements which the Review recommended will help ensure better recognition of the joint role of parents within wider society.
- The Government also accepts the need to clarify and restore public confidence that the courts recognise the joint nature of parenting. We will therefore make a legislative statement emphasising the importance of children having an ongoing relationship with both their parents after family separation, where that is safe, and in the child's best interests. The Government is mindful of the lessons which must be learnt from the Australian experience of legislating in this area, which were highlighted by the Review and led them to urge caution. We will therefore consider very carefully how legislation can be framed to ensure that a meaningful relationship is not about equal division of time, but the quality of parenting received by the child.
Speeding up care and adoption cases by reforming the Public Law System and increasing transparency. The Government has already begun to publish data on the timeliness of court cases so we can see where delays are occurring. We will introduce legislation at the earliest opportunity to enable a six month time limit to be set and wherever possible we expect cases to be completed more quickly, while retaining the flexibility to extend complex cases where this is genuinely in the child's interest.
Simplifying the family justice system to help separating couples reach lasting agreement speedily, if possible without going to court. The Government will make it mandatory for separating parents who propose court action to resolve a dispute about their child to have an initial assessment to see if mediation is something which would be suitable instead, to help them agree on the arrangements for their child. We estimate that we will spend an extra £10m a year on legal aid for family mediation taking the total to £25m per year (although we have placed no upper limit on this figure). We will also examine how to give the Courts more robust enforcement tools to combat failure to comply with judgments.
Driving culture change and better cross-system working through the establishment of a new Family Justice Board, accountable to Ministers, made up of senior figures representing the key organisations who play a role within the system and who will have a clear remit to improve performance.
Other key commitments in the Government's response are:
- To consider how Parenting Agreements could be used to emphasise the need for parents to consider how the child can maintain a relationship with other close family members, such as grandparents.
- To reduce expense and delay caused by the excessive use of expert reports, strengthening their quality and ensuring only essential reports are commissioned
- To reduce the amount of time spent by Judges and Courts scrutinising care plans, focusing instead on the core or essential components when making care orders.
- To bring court social work closer to other court services by transferring Cafcass sponsorship to the Ministry of Justice;
- To create a single family court across England and Wales, with a single point of entry, to simplify the system and make it more accessible for families using the system.
The full Government response can be accessed here