Children and family courts in crisis

punishing for truancy
21/08/2018
Tolpuddle 2018
21/08/2018

Children and family courts in crisis

For several years, there has been a relentless rise in the number of cases going to family courts, culminating in a 13% increase in private law cases and a further 6% increase in care applications in 2018. This is set against a backdrop of a standstill Cafcass budget, cuts to legal aid and subsequent increase in the numbers of litigants-in-person, which make cases more challenging.

It is universally accepted that without the huge staff efforts, the system would have already collapsed, but the recently published, Care Crisis Review, talks about the system “operating at the sustainable margins”. Worryingly, May 2018 saw the second highest number of referrals since recording began.
The Care Crisis Review highlights how wider government cuts and policy changes have impacted the family court system. It also points to a sense of crisis felt by those using and working in the system.Cuts creating crisis
The crisis stems from the combined impact of resourcing cuts:

  • Inside the system creating difficulty for users and staff (e.g. increased charges to parents making it harder to persuade them to mediate having already paid for their day in court) and;
  • The £2bn shortfall in the children’s social care service budgets means that in many areas, pre-proceeding services for families are almost non-existent. Local Children’s Centres have either closed or had to reduce the services they offer such as positive parenting classes.
  • Changes to legal aid have stopped solicitors from working with separated or separating parents to negotiate safe and suitable arrangements before needing to go to court. The mediation capacity within the service is greatly reduced increasing demand that it then cannot meet.

These cuts are evidentially false economies. They have fed a poisonous cycle that is polluting the children’s care system. Cuts to resources increase the stress of users; which impacts on staff; which impacts on morale; which impacts on quality of service; which undermines user confidence; which increases their stress.

Listening to the professionals

Professionals need to be at the heart of a national discussion about how to better support families before they get to court, and thus limit demand; as well as how to support users effectively and efficiently once in the system. This needs to be recognised and facilitated by national leaders, including ministers.

Likewise, there needs to be greater co-operation between different sections of the system. There are many private law applications where children are already known to the local authority, often because of parental disputes over contact arrangements with the non-resident parent, as well as domestic abuse. It is commonly noted that local authorities take no further action when parents apply to the family court within private law proceedings. There are also significant numbers of repeat applications for enforcement or variations of existing court orders. Greater strategic, joined up planning could reduce this strain.

This is why Napo has asked the Justice and Family Court Unions Parliamentary Group (JFCUPG) to:

  1. Increase awareness in parliament of the growing crisis.
  2. Create an open dialogue between the relevant government departments (e.g. MoJ, Education and Families, Housing, Communities and Local Government) with a view of meeting with select committees and producing joint briefings.
  3. Promote how the family courts should work, and how they are currently working so that decision makers have a deeper understanding of the impact of policy decisions.
  4. Use 1 to 3 to inform and support a targeted campaign to secure additional government resource for the children’s social care sector, including a sustainable future settlement for Cafcass.

Dean Rogers
Assistant general secretary

 

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