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Posts Tagged ‘family court system’

Thank Goodness for that – the new(ish) President of the Family Division has decided not to renew the guidance and may scrap the duty guardian scheme. See this article extracting an interview reported fully in Family Affairs.

On another note, a proposal to scrap CAFCASS and to reallocate it’s responsibilities to local authorities. Clearly something pretty radical needs to be done, but I’m no fan of that as a solution – whatever arrangements are made it is crucial that arrangements for the provision of Guardians, and to a lesser extent for reporting in children matters to be independent of local authorities.

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Pootling around on the internet in the light of this weeks horse painting shennanigans I came across Matt O’Connor’s new blog Father4Justice, the new F4J website (be warned, it looks nice but plays annoying music which won’t turn off) and facebook group for the recently relaunched Fathers 4 Justice. Matt O’Connor’s first substantive blog post explaining the decision to re-enter the fray and to relaunch F4J is (as ever with Matt O’Connor) punchy, hard hitting and well crafted – it roused my rabble – and I’m “the enemy”.

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But seriously, although I don’t buy into many of the conspiracy theories about the anti-male agenda of the system, there is a place for campaigns for reform of the family justice system – dads, mums and kids do very often get a raw deal. And although I recognise that for many I’m part of the problem, I like to think I do my bit for justice, even though I do it from within the system.

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Community Care reports on the prospect of Independent Social Workers quitting over the fees cap to be introduced by the LSC in October. What the article fails to disentangle (in fact it rather adds to the confusion) is the distinction between ISWs contracted by CAFCASS on a self employed basis to carry out Guardian or report writing work it does not have the in house resource to manage (and for which CAFCASS pays its own rate) and ISWs instructed as an expert by the parties with the permission of the court, and whose costs will be met (usually) by the LSC at its own rate. I know that there have been complaints about both the CAFCASS rate and the proposed rate via the LSC, and the thrust of the article is right: ISWs are finding it a real squeeze. Many are  quitting working for CAFCASS, or have already done so, only to find that their other source of self employed income i.e. expert instructions will also be severely limited.

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It’s important to distinguish between a self employed CAFCASS Guardian and a social worker who is instructed as an independent expert in the case with the permission of the court. Their roles are quite different, and whilst each is independent in their own way it is not the role of a Guardian to conduct in depth assessments of a family or children. Where that work has not been completed by social services or has not been completed satisfactorily or with an independent and open mind the only means by which a parent can obtain a fair and thorough assessment is via ISW report. This type of report can turn a case around. If social workers flee not just CAFCASS, but refuse to undertake assessments at £30 an hour too, there will be injustices.

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So the Government has published its Families & Relationships Green Paper in which it proposes a fundamental review of the Family Justice System and a number of other reforms. Like John Bolch at Family Lore I’m not sure what this really adds up to. There are a number of press releases from the relevant departments: DCSF and MoJ. So what does it all mean for the family justice system?

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Primarily, there’s a review which we won’t know the outcome of until 2011, and right now we don’t even know who will conduct it. Judging from the press releases it seems to be predicated upon the assertion that the problem is the adversarial nature of court proceedings and the fact that they heighten conflict. Jack Straw says:

‘We know that for many families the current family justice system is proving far too complicated, and its adversarial nature can lead to bitter, lengthy court hearings, prolonging what is already a stressful and emotionally draining experience. ‘

So in summary, the Courts make it worse. Of course it’s a no brainer that the adversarial nature of proceedings can increase the temperature but that does rather dance over the fact that it is only the most highly conflicted cases that end up in court at all. Most couples do find other ways  to sort things out, and even those that end up in the system must pass through a barrage of non-adversarial processes designed at resolution (in court conciliation, lawyer assisted negotiation etc.) before they ever get to an old fashioned trial. And in the current circumstances its not the court system per se which worsens conflict, and it’s not because it’s all too complicated –  it’s the lack of resources available to properly run the court system that leads to delay, frustration and despondency, and perpetuates or exacerbates conflict.

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I attended the FLBA Annual Conference in Bath today and was struck by a really interesting talk by Dr Kirk Weir, Consultant Child, Adolescent & Family Psychiatrist. He presented statistics based on his work as an expert reporting in High Conflict Contact Cases over a number of years, in support of the proposition that an emphasis on a child’s reported wishes and feelings in such cases is misplaced and potentially misleading. The figures were quite striking.

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Dr Weir reported that of the children he assessed, all of whom were children expressing resistence to contact at the outset, most were able to resume contact once an observed contact was insisted upon. Contact was successfully reestablished and continued in the majority of cases. Factors affecting the likely success of contact leading on from such an assessed contact were neutral handover without the resident parent present (e.g. collect from school), the age of the child (although successful outcomes were achieved with all age groups success with over 7s was more unpredictable), and the length of the preceding period of no contact (the shorter the better). What was apparent from the material presented by Dr Weir was that:

  1. delay in these cases is likely to be harmful and to reduce the chances of a successful outcome (this is not news but the correlation was quite starkly apparent from the figures)
  2. wishes and feelings reports may lead us to abandon attempts to re-establish contact prematurely
  3. whilst for some children it is important to enable them to feel they have a voice, it is important to be aware that children need protection from the burden of having to express a preference for one or other parent or from having to take responsibility for such difficult decisions

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There are 40,000 contact applications issued in England & Wales each year. Delay is endemic. The President’s Interim Guidance actively encourages the use of short wishes and feelings reports as a first port of call in order to reduce the burden on an overstretched CAFCASS. These reports have their place of course, and many contact cases are far less entrenched or highly conflicted than the types of cases Dr Weir is involved with. But all cases start out the same way and most follow a pretty predictable route through in court conciliation, review hearings, wishes and feelings reports – trying this and trying that, softly softly…before months have turned into years and someone somewhere realises this has become a High Conflict Contact Dispute and BANG: you wish with hindsight you had grabbed the bull by the horns earlier on and got an expert in. If Dr Weir is right we’re going about it all wrong. And the current cheap and cheerful wishes and feelings reports may be storing up problems for further down the road.

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One of the topics not addressed by Dr Weir is that the LSC will now not fund any assessment of contact in private law cases and so Dr Weir’s own working practice of insisting that an assessed contact is an integral part of the assessment may no longer be achievable.

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Dr Weir’s paper on this topic has been submitted for peer review. If and when I hear of its publication I will post a link or reference.

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PM today ran a piece on the Crisis at CAFCASS, inolving comically disguised voices of Guardian’s and a teeny but undisguised snippet from yours truly. Sad that CAFCASS employee’s feel unable to identify themselves without repurcussions. It does not speak of a happy working environment. Listen here on BBC iplayer for another 7 days – it starts at about 24 mins in.

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I should avoid the obvious opportunity to make a sexist remark about the inherent improbability of some men doing anything remotely useful with a hoover but it’s just slipped out.

Apparently Batman and his specially modified hoover will be visiting the family courts soon to help clean them up. Excellent. I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to that forthcoming entertainment. I hope he brings his marigolds. It’s messy out there.

I’m particularly intrigued to know how this little piece of performance art will unfold on the ground. Will Batman actually operate his hoover in the waiting area to dramatic effect (I fear this may interfere with his ability to deliver any punchy script)? Will we have to pause mid conference to raise our feet as he gets those hard to reach crumbs under the chairs? Will he have to pause to change bags or unclog his hose? Will he wield his hoover menacingly at the judiciary? And will it set off the metal detector? And will he be visiting the court at Abergavenny to finish cleaning up the F4J graffitti scrawled across the front entrance?

According to Batman’s facebook page he hopes to clean up family law “…who knows, I might suck up a few corrupt judges and the “gravy train, money hungry solicitors””. Batman dear, that sounds rather threatening. You’d better not point that thing at me, I am very lumpy and will most likely damage your nozzle.

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