Operation of the Family Courts - Justice Committee Contents

Written evidence from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health[25] (FC 20)


1.  As the professional organisation representing paediatricians, we recognise and support the important role of paediatricians in the Family Justice System as professionals and expert witnesses (Working in the Family Justice System: The Official Handbook of the Family Justice Council, E. Walsh (2010) and A Handbook for Expert Witnesses in Children Act Cases, N. Wall and I. Hamilton (2007)).

2.  The paediatrician's role is key to proceedings regarding the identification, assessment, diagnosis, causation of harm, future needs and well being. The paediatrician's training and knowledge is less focussed on family dynamics, family outcomes and future placement.

3.  Diagnosis and causation are frequently complicated by uncertainty, This will be reflected in the potential impact of harm and hence the degree of risk.

4.  We recognise significant delays in bringing cases forward. This is harmful to children and unhelpful for paediatrician's clinical practice. From our perspective CAFCASS is one part of this delay.

5.  We have significant concerns about the changes in the legal aid system and hear from paediatricians across the country of difficulties. For example significant reduction in the number of firms contracted to offer legal aid for family law resulting in difficulties in representing the various parties involved. The families involved are often from the most vulnerable groups from society and limiting access to legal aid will surely particularly disadvantage them.

6.  Whilst paediatricians are primarily involved with children within in Public Law proceedings, we also see children involved in private law proceedings. These children are commonly at risk of, or suffer actual emotional harm. Any increase in mediation or other (evidence based services) is most welcome.

7.  In terms of confidentiality and openness in family courts, our paramount principle is that a child's welfare must be maintained and that openness and transparency is a secondary priority.

8.  Unlimited access to health information and medical reports is unacceptable and will result in health professionals finding themselves in a conflicted position on matters of patient confidentiality.

9.  There is the potential for a professional regulatory body to be involved should confidentiality be breached in a manner not considered to be in the public interest.

10.  Consent from parents or older children may be difficult to obtain if families are informed, as they should be, that health records/reports may be made available to the media. If this was so, then the quality of the report itself may be compromised.

11.  We would draw your attention to the lack of evidence based information on the impact of greater openness on the welfare of children. We note that a recent briefing (Openness and transparency in Family Courts: what the experience of other countries tells us about reform in England and Wales, Brophy and Roberts, 2009) that highlights the impact of various approaches to this issue in other countries.

12.  Significant and detailed health information about the child and family will have been presented by members of the primary health care team and the treating paediatric team. This will contain a detailed chronology of the child and family and usually considerable third party information. Allowing journalists access to this information would we believe cause significant difficulties in retaining anonymity and would surely breach confidentiality.

13.  We believe that there should be discretionary access to expert reports and that identification of expert witnesses can take place.

September 2010

25   We are responsible for the training and examination of paediatricians and supporting their ongoing professional development. By the end of this year we will have completed Child Protection training materials for paediatric trainees (core and specialists) and with the Department of Health, training materials for consultant and career grade paediatricians. We run an annual Court skills programme for paediatricians and expect all paediatricians to develop the relevant skills and competencies to work effectively throughout the court systems. Back

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Prepared 14 July 2011