Operation of the Family Courts - Justice Committee Contents

Written evidence from the Greater Family Panel (FC 11)


  • The Service provided to the Family Proceedings Courts over the past two years by Cafcass has deteriorated. Interim arrangements introduced by the President of the Family Division have had some limited effect.
  • Additional funding granted to Cafcass by the DOE appears to have no impact on the service offered to the FPCs.
  • The reduction in the number of family solicitors granted legal aid contracts and the poor service offered by Cafcass in public law cases, leads the courts to believe that the best interests of children will not be served, neither will their wishes and feelings be available to the courts.
  • The initial indications are that the new mediation facilities offered to parents in private law proceedings are proving helpful in reducing both the number of reports require to. be written by Cafcass and the number of contested hearings before the courts.
  • The changes to the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010 regarding openness in Family Proceedings has had no impact on FPCs.
  • Government should consider other methods of informing the public about the work of Family Courts. The public need to know how the courts work and the issues that arise and what factors are taken into consideration in the decision making process. Family Court Open days are an alternative method of educating the general public.


This submission is made on behalf of The Greater London Family Panel (GLFP).

The GLFP is made up of 500 family magistrates serving at the eleven Family Proceedings Courts in Greater London. It is the biggest Family Panel in the country.

It deals with in excess of 2,400 applications a year covering both public and private law cases. This constitutes approximately 8% of the family applications made in the UK and Wales.


(i)  The effect of Cafcass's operations on court proceedings, and the impact on the courts of the sponsorship of Cafcass by the Department of Education

1.1  The service provided by Cafcass across London has been varied since the crisis caused by the Baby Peter case and before.

1.2  Inner London Family proceedings Court at Wells St was the first to experience the Duty Cafcass Officer arrangements for first appointments in public law cases as directed under the Presidents Interim Guidance. This worked well and magistrates were very much assisted in their decision making by the advice of experienced Officers, although they could not act as Guardians ie they would not see papers until the morning of the case, could not meet with the child in the case. They might see the parents in the case on the morning of the hearing.

1.3  The experience of the other 10 FPCs in Greater London was different. Assurances were given by Cafcass that the duty scheme would be phased in at the five other main Family proceedings courts sitting at Brent, Stratford, Croydon and Richmond Magistrates' Courts and Barnet County Court. The South West London FPC sitting at Richmond was the last to receive this service in March of this year but only to find that before it was properly up and running the Interim Guidance was modified to provide a Guardian at all first hearings.

1.4  Following the President's further Interim Guidance that at all first hearings Guardians should be present, this does not happen on a regular basis at any of the London FPCs, and the fall back arrangements that the duty officer scheme would be available also has not supported this further PIG.

1.5  Family justices sitting at the outer London FPCs would say that the duty scheme worked in part. There were good and experienced officers who would be prepared to give robust advice, and others who would sit on the fence and not give definitive advice. These early decisions made by the family proceedings courts are very difficult especially when the application involves the separation and removal of a child from their family. These decisions often set the direction of the whole case. If a child is removed where later it was not considered necessary, the child may be parted from their family for months causing severe distress, great trauma and damage to the child.

1.6  The direction from HHJ Altman the DFJ for London advised that if courts wanted to prioritise a case the bench should make a direction for a date by which a Guardian should be appointed. This was rarely effective. No explanations were given by Cafcass.

1.7  Cases are delayed because of the late appointment of a Guardian particularly when it is considered that the Guardian's analysis and recommendations are vital and direction dates for filing are put back.

1.8  When analysis and recommendation reports are made they are usually of high calibre, focused and very helpful to the court in decision making.

1.9  Crucially, Cafcass management failed to communicate effectively with the Greater London FPCs, despite the London Justices' Clerk for family, being available and the Greater London Cafcass Liaison Committee being an important conduit for discussion and communication.

1.10  Even with the additional funding from the Department of Education (formerly DCSF), the courts did not perceive any improvement in the system, although the courts are led to believe the backlog in the allocation of Guardians has been reduced to a minimum.

(ii)  The impact on court proceedings and access to justice of recent and proposed changes to legal aid

2.1  The courts find that the number of solicitors available to represent the child have reduced dramatically. This is as a result of the planned reduction of the legal aid contracts awarded to a limited number of family solicitors. In London where there is a great deal of complex work involving all races and cultures it is a concern that the already limited pool will become so small and over worked. And in a climate when Cafcass are not providing a full service, the best interests of children will not be served nor will their wishes and feelings be made known to the court.

2.2  In private law matters, the courts are seeing more and more parties representing themselves. This delays the court process and places an enormous burden on the Legal advisers who have to ensure the proceedings are even handed especially when one parent is represented and the other is not. Parents fail to file and serve documents as directed which also delays proceedings.

(iii)  The role, operation and resourcing of mediation and other methods in resolving matters before they reach court

3.1  The Greater London Family Panel cannot comment on the resourcing of mediation only the effects.

3.2  Initial indications regarding mediation are very positive. Cafcass will have made the initial safeguarding checks before parents' first appointment at court and a recommendation for mediation after seeing both parents at the first appointment may be made. If mediation is successful, no Section 7 report is then needed, taking pressure off Cafcass.

3.3  Mediation has diverted a number of contact cases away from the courts. This is very encouraging. However there will always be a small minority of cases where parents will never agree any arrangements between themselves even with intensive input from a mediator and will result in the matter being decided by the court.

(iv)  Confidentiality and openness in family courts, including the impact of the recent changes in the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010

4.1  There has been no impact on the local FPCs to the recent changes brought in by the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010. Initially one or two reporters appeared at court, but after this flourish at the beginning, reporters have left the FPCs alone.

4.2  The press have always had access to the FPCs with permission of the court, but have rarely chosen to exercise this facility. It is the reporting restrictions that discourage them from attending court.

4.3  An overall view of the publication of anonymised reasons is that, in principle, this is right provided that the anonymity of the family is maintained. However the vehicle for doing so currently is somewhat flawed.

  • (a)  the general public is unaware of the website Bailii;
  • (b)  the reasons as they stand are mixed and varied. Some of the early publicized reasons gave so much information that anyone in the community would have been able to identify the families and others contained no information which makes their publication meaningless; and
  • (c)  it is currently unclear with whom does the responsibility rest for the drafting the anonymised reasons. Similarly there is no indication of the cost implications of such an undertaking.

4.4  Alternative approaches can be made to "open" up family courts, for instance, Family Court Open Days. London held the first such specific Family Court Open Day in Oct 2009 which was successful and achieved its aim of informing the public of the work of the FPCs, demonstrating the types of cases, based on actual events and the matters that are taken into consideration by the courts your hard work in when coming to a decision.

September 2010

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