Families dealing with a relationship breakdown warned of ‘crisis’ facing family justice system

The family justice system is in “crisis” with families dealing with a relationship breakdown facing a support “void”, according to a new report.

Action is needed to ensure that children in the middle of a separation are put “centre stage”, rather than being seen as “secondary subjects” to any dispute being settled between their parents, a paper by the Family Solutions Group, a sub-group of the Private Law Working Group, says.

It argues that more than 30 years on from the Children Act of 1989, which made major reforms to the law relating to youngsters and families, much still needs to change.

The report says that attempts to move separating couples away from the courts into mediation have ended up being “counter-productive”.

It warns: “Since awareness of mediation in the general population is low and provision of support outside of the court system is patchy and poorly signposted, this leaves a void for separating families at a time of great need.

“It is no surprise, therefore, that parents who struggle to agree arrangements in the aftermath of relationship breakdown still view their issues as legal issues, aware of the provision which is available: the family court.”

The report also says: “The ‘Family Justice System’ is in crisis. This is no exaggeration.

“The numbers of parents making applications are unmanageable and family courts are stretched beyond limits, with the numbers of applications (often about matters that should never have reached the doors of the court) growing exponentially.

“The system is recognised as broken and in need of radical reform.”

The group argues it is “critical to recognise that children are at risk of great harm” when their parents separate, with research showing that unresolved parental conflict can be harmful to youngsters, and a risk that friction between parents can lead some children to lose a close relationship with one of their parents.

The report goes on to say that in cases where there is “high conflict and abuse”, court intervention may be needed.

But it adds most families need “holistic and relational” support that promotes co-operation between parents and child welfare and gives access to information and services to both parents and children.

The group says it has been asked to put forward a series of recommendations for measures that can be taken to improve the system for parents and children.

These cover areas including political responsibility, education, support services and parenting programmes.

It calls for a public education campaign aimed at moving the language around family breakdown away from “justice” and towards “an understanding of child welfare” that promotes the rights of children to have relationships with both parents, in cases where there are no safety issues.

It also says young people’s views should be taken into account, and there should be “a presumption that all children and young people aged 10 and above be offered the opportunity to have their voices heard in all processes for resolving issues between parents, including mediation and solicitor-led processes”.

The group also recommends a package of support for parents, including local networks of family professionals to help parents solve issues with the help of therapists, parenting specialists, mediators and legal services.

The paper concludes: “The Children Act was to be a ‘charter for children’ yet three decades on their voices, rights and interests are still marginalised in decision-making when parents separate.

“We believe the time has now come to transform our thinking in both England and Wales towards an approach which puts safety first, and otherwise promotes a child-centred, child-inclusive, holistic approach for both parents and children.”

Commenting on the report, Sir Andrew McFarlane (pictured), president of the family division, said: “It should be a matter of concern for society in general to achieve better co-parenting between separating couples.

“It is thought that about 40% of all separating parents bring issues about their children’s care to the Family Court for determination, rather than exercising parental responsibility and sorting problems out themselves.

“This figure is both startling and worrying. Where there are no issues of domestic abuse or child protection, parents ought to be able, or encouraged, to make arrangements for their own child, rather than come to a court of law and a judge to resolve the issues.”

The Private Law Working Group was set up to review the approach taken to private disputes between parents over their children. The group is made up of judges, lawyers and specialists in children’s services.

A Government spokesperson said: “We are working across Government on ways we can support separating parents to resolve disputes outside of court, when this is in the best interests of the children.”

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