Operation of the Family Courts - Justice Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1.  On 20 July 2010 we announced our inquiry into the Operation of the Family Courts prompted by the new Government's proposals in four areas which would impact on the courts. Proposals for the reform of legal aid; changes to the current joint-sponsorship arrangements for the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass); encouraging the use of mediation in resolving matters before they reach court; and the statutory scheme for increasing media access to the family courts all merited scrutiny in the particular context of family law. We also wanted to provide democratic oversight of the Family Justice Review's interim proposals; and so scrutinise and influence the reform of the family courts at the earliest possible stage in the policy-making and legislative process.

2.  Our terms of reference focused on four specific areas:

  • The role and operation of Cafcass in court proceedings, including the sponsorship of Cafcass by the Department for Education;
  • The impact on court proceedings and access to justice of recent and proposed changes to legal aid;
  • The role, operation and resourcing of mediation in resolving matters before they reach court;
  • Confidentiality and openness in family courts, including the impact of the proposed scheme in the 2010 Children, Schools and Families Act.

3.  Relationship breakdown and the removal of children from their birth family are highly emotive areas. Inevitably, some of the evidence we have heard has been hotly disputed by other witnesses. Throughout our inquiry we have kept in mind that the primary purpose of all interventions in family relationships must be to protect the safety and wellbeing of the child.

4.  It should be emphasised at the outset that the private law cases which appear in the family court system are a minority, as the evidence suggests that only 10% of all relationship breakdowns result in a court hearing.[1] Inevitably, therefore, they are the cases that present particular challenges where the parties find it impossible to compromise without assistance.

5.  In May 2011 Professor Eileen Munro published her report into child protection.[2] The work of local authorities is outside the scope of this inquiry but we welcome Professor Munro's recommendations on reducing delays in care proceedings and look forward to the Government's response.

6.  We received over 160 submissions from witnesses and took oral evidence from the witnesses listed at the end of this Report. We are grateful to all those who took the time to contribute to our inquiry. We also wish to thank our specialist adviser, Professor Judith Masson, Professor of Socio-legal Studies, University of Bristol, for her expert advice and assistance throughout this inquiry.

1   Family Justice Review, Interim Report, March 2011, Ministry of Justice. (from here on referred to as Interim Report) Back

2   The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final Report: A child-centred system, Cm 8062, Department for Education, May 2011 Back

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Prepared 14 July 2011