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Family courts need radical rebalancing, says chief

Published 20/09/2016

The president of the High Court's Family Division said everyone is working as hard as they can
The president of the High Court's Family Division said everyone is working as hard as they can

The head of the family courts has spoken of what must be done to tackle the "clear and imminent crisis" presented by the ever-increasing number of care cases.

In comments made public on Tuesday, the president of the High Court's Family Division, Sir James Munby, said everyone is working as hard as they can but there is no clear strategy.

Care cases, with their potential for life-long separation of children and their parents, are of unique gravity and importance, he added.

Fairness and justice demand a process in which both the parents and the child could fully participate with the assistance of representation by skilled and experienced lawyers.

"On the fundamentals there can be and will be neither compromise nor retreat. But this does not mean that there is no scope for improving, streamlining and speeding up our processes. We can, and we must, if the system is not to buckle under the pressure of ever-increasing caseloads."

The most important thing is to address the need for a radical rebalancing of the functions and purpose of the family courts, he said.

"The family court must become, in much of what it does, a problem-solving court."

Projects like the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) and Pause, which supports women at risk of repeat removals of children, improved outcomes for children and parents, saved large sums of money and must be nurtured and supported.

"How does this relate to the crisis? The point is very simple. Our objective in everything we do is, of course, the welfare of the child. But the child is not the problem. Insofar as there is a 'problem', it lies with the parent. And mothers with problems can have many children, too many of them in due course becoming the subject of care proceedings.

"As the recently published research by Professor Karen Broadhurst has demonstrated, the statistics are very striking. A mother with problems can generate five, 10 or even more care cases down the years, as her successive children are taken into care. If we can only solve, as FDAC and Pause so successfully solve, the 'problem', then the consequence is a reduction in the number of new cases coming into the system.

"FDAC, Pause and similar projects are, at present, the best hope, indeed, in truth, the only hope, we have of bringing the system, the ever-increasing numbers of care cases, under control."

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