Home / Insights / Blog / Placing children at the heart of the family justice system

Placing children at the heart of the family justice system

Placing children at the heart of the family justice system

Thanks to a campaign led by the Family Justice Young People’s Board (FJYPB), which has long asserted that children and young people appearing in family court are given little or no say as to what might happen to them, the government has agreed to give them full access to judges, in order to make their feelings and views known.

Family Justice Minister Simon Hughes told the Board that the Ministry of Justice will work with family court judges and the Children and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service to make it “normal practice” for children aged ten and above “to make clear their views as to what is the best resolution of the family dispute in their interest”.

FJYPB member Kitty, a 15-year-old from Leicestershire, told of the “huge sense of relief” she felt after speaking to the judge in her case, adding that it dissipated her feelings of isolation. Malcolm Richardson, deputy chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, gave a tentative welcome to the proposals, but added care must be taken to avoid pressuring reluctant youngsters into direct involvement. He also questioned how well-funded the project would be, given that the majority of family court cases now do not attract legal aid for adults.

“Traumatic and harrowing”

The withdrawal of legal aid from family lawyers for most private family law matters in April 2013 has seen a surge in the number of unrepresented parents in court – with 58% of all parents attending court in 2013-2014 doing so without a lawyer, up from 43% in the previous year. In total, UK family courts dealt with 19,140 more unrepresented parents.

Shadow Justice Minister Sadiq Khan said “Not only does it cost the system more money when people turn up in court without a lawyer as the whole process is much slower, but the experience for those concerned can be traumatic and harrowing”.

Jo Edwards, Chair of family law membership body Resolution, warned that due to delays caused by unrepresented litigants and overstretched judges, the family courts system is at breaking point.

“We accept you can’t go back to funding family cases all the way through but if you have a system at breaking point that will be more costly. The family courts system is very, very, very stretched. We recently met the Association of District Judges and they were virtually holding their heads in their hands and saying its very difficult. People who represent themselves are not negotiating. They need a lot of time and help. The judges are having to draft orders which is normally done by the parties. I have heard of cases being listed eight months in advance,” she stated.

Disproportionate effect on mothers

Over half of the total of unrepresented parents was made up of women, with the cuts to legal aid having a disproportionate effect on lower-income mothers, the number surging 52% to almost 35,000. Jerry Karlin, chair of the shared parenting charity Families Need Fathers said “We urgently need to develop affordable and compelling services that strive to keep parents from the courtroom”.

Report due by year’s end

In his closing address to the FJYPB, Family Division President Sir James Munby said that the Children and Vulnerable Witnesses Working Group has been evaluating the issues of children meeting judges and children giving evidence in family proceedings; he commented “Joined up debate about all this is needed and I hope to have something for public consultation well before the end of the year”.

We can provide initial short family law consultations at a reduced fixed fee, where our expert advisors will be able to give you initial guidance on ways to resolve family disputes, either through mediation or individual representation. We will always provide you with cost estimates at the start and throughout your case.

If you would like to discuss any aspect of family law, are considering divorce proceedings or a trial separation, or want to draw up a pre or post-nuptial agreement, call us in absolute confidence on 01494 790058 or 01494 790047. Alternatively, email us at familylaw@ibblaw.co.uk.