This week, the Lib-Con coalition government enacted what it has called the ‘largest family-justice reform for a generation’. The Children and Families Act 2014, which came into effect on 22 April, allows for wide-reaching changes to the way that the family courts operate, including an extendable 26-week limit to care proceedings and limits on the use of expert-witness evidence. The family justice minister, Simon Hughes, said that the reforms ‘focus on the children’s needs rather than what parents see as their own rights’.
While the act makes provision for a number of sensible administrative changes to the family courts, such as ensuring that the same judge hears the same case throughout all the relevant hearings, the central point of the act is to make family justice more ‘efficient’. The act follows the independent Family Justice Review undertaken by David Norgrove in 2011, which concluded that the system is often subject to ‘unconscionable delay’ which was ‘fuelled’ by a judicial ‘distrust of local authorities’.
He continued: ‘It is of course right that we endeavour to keep families safely together, but we must also be quicker to recognise when this is not possible’. Peeling back the flowery language, the philosophy behind the reforms is clear: judges must be more willing to put children into the care of local authorities quickly.
This focus on ‘efficiency’ is symptomatic of a system which is drifting towards the Kafkaesque. Consider what Hughes means when he talks about ‘the children’s needs’ in the context of care proceedings. In 2001, the Labour government established the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS). CAFCASS became the largest employer of social workers in England and Wales following the introduction of the role of the family court adviser (FCA). FCAs represented a new presence in the family courts, in the form of social workers who are instructed to represent the ‘interests of the child’ in care proceedings.
FCAs are instructed by the court to attend to families, interview parents and their children (often separately) and make ‘representations and recommendations to judges’ as to what is in the interests of the child.