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Specialist family courts hailed

Specialist family courts which sometimes stage lawyer-free hearings are starting to spread to the regions after being praised by one of the UK's leading judges.

Family Drug and Alcohol Courts are already operating in London - and Gloucester - after trials began six years ago.

They have been hailed as a success by Sir James Munby, the most senior family judge in England and Wales.

And the latest is today opening for business in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire.

Family Drug and Alcohol Courts are taking a new approach to cases involving parents who have drug and alcohol abuse problems and are embroiled in child care proceedings - and have unique features.

They are funded by local authorities and involve a specialist team - which can include social workers and medical experts - which works with a specialist family judge.

Judges regularly review parents' progress - sometimes speaking directly to them at hearings not attended by lawyers - before making decisions about children's futures.

Courts are laid out in the shape of a horseshoe, no-one stands to address judges, and judges have pre-hearing briefings with specialist workers.

Cases are heard in private but journalists have been allowed access to some hearings.

Last month Sir James, president of the Family Division of the High Court, said Family Drug and Alcohol Courts were working.

He said they were good for children in danger of being taken into care, good for their parents and a good use of public money.

And he said he wanted to see the project rolled out across the country.

Earlier this year, a report by researchers at Brunel University concluded that Family Drug and Alcohol Courts offered a "problem-solving, therapeutic approach".

They said parental substance abuse featured in as many as two in three care applications by local authorities,

And they said "ordinary" family court proceedings were not producing enough satisfactory outcomes.

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