Children and Famlies Bill

Memorandum submitted by The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) (CF 01)

1. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) is one of the largest trade unions in the UK, with over 26 0,000 members. We are organised throughout the civil service and government agencies, making us the UK’s largest civil service trade union. We also organise widely in the private sector, usually in areas that have been privatised.

2. PCS represents around 14,000 members working in the Ministry of Justice, including those employed in the family courts system. Our submission focuses specifically to the changes relating to family justice in part 2 of the Children and Families Bill. We would be happy to provide the Bill Committee with further written or oral evidence on request.

Part 2 Family justice

Clause 10 Family mediation information and assessment meetings

3. The bill will make attendance at a family mediation information assessment meeting (MIAM) compulsory before making a relevant family application. At present, solicitors make a referral to a mediator, allowing clients to receive legal advice before going into the mediation process.

4. As MIAMs will be compulsory, mediators will be tasked with screening for domestic abuse and safeguarding issues in relation to children. Many mediators will not have the necessary training and experience that CAFCASS officers already possess, particularly for mediation relating to children matters.

5. At the very least, there needs to be accreditation and regulation of mediators. We propose that the minimum requirement currently set by the Legal Services Commission is utilised.

6. We are concerned that compulsory attendance at MIAMs may be used to further domestic abuse that happened in the past or does not meet the required standards.

7. The vast majority of parents settle arrangements for children themselves. Those that come to court are by their nature the most acrimonious, complex or have welfare concerns. It is therefore unlikely that mediation will be suitable or successful and will not reduce court applications.

Clause 12 Child arrangement orders

8. The Children Act 1989 is to be amended to abolish residence and contact orders and introduce a presumption of shared parenting provided this would not harm the child.

9. A statutory change to the idea of shared parenting will risk a public perception of an entitlement to both parents having 50/50 time with the children.

10. The changes will shift the emphasis from the child’s welfare to the parents’ rights.

11. We are concerned that an unfamiliar order is being introduced at a time when legal aid will have been largely removed. Legal aid needs to be available for an initial advice meeting and support during the mediation process, if not for the proceedings. More information needs to be publicly promoted and available - not simply accessible from the internet - at courts offices and other public buildings. Legal aid should also meet the costs of the regular appointment of a guardian for the children with legal representation in more complex cases where the parents are unrepresented.

12. They could also undermine the prospect of parents being able to reach an agreement themselves. This might result in further court applications, particularly where counters in the Family Court offices (from which most family work is administered) now have very restricted opening hours due to cuts in staff. There needs to be an assessment made of the likely number of court applications made as a result of the changes.

Clause 14 Care, supervision and other family proceedings: time limits and timetables

13. The government is seeking to implement a statutory 26 week time limit for the conclusion of care cases. Currently the average time for care cases is 60 weeks. The numbers of care proceedings issued continue to increase post the baby Peter case. Case applications in 2012 were up 10% on the previous year. This rise in applications is taking place while courts closures and staff numbers have been significantly reduced.

14. The cuts have led to delays in getting hearings listed and a lack of resources for children’s guardians and for social workers. The impact of an inadequate activity based costing model, to determine resources and staffing, has been to put pressure on family proceedings courts and reduce the number of hours they sit for. This has reduced the flexibility of the courts and is not compatible with completing care proceedings in a shorter time.

15. Cuts to legal aid and the tendering processes have resulted in a reduction in the number of firms being able to offer legal aid for care cases, meaning there are a lack of lawyers for multiple party complex cases in some areas.

16. While we would like to see average times reduced, the changes risk artificially forcing cases through by preventing children’s guardians from properly investigating issues.

17. Currently, the issuing of pre-care proceedings cause the worst delay and this problem will be unaffected by the 26 week timescale.

18. We recommend the following:

· Secondary legislation with a clear right of the Judge to extend the timetable beyond 26 weeks if that is felt to be in the best interests of the children

· Children’s guardians should be appointed pre-proceedings and be fully supported throughout the process to investigate and bring all relevant issues to the attention of the court

· Better training for social workers

· Greater use of family group conferencing pre-proceedings

· Assessment of the impact of cuts in public funding on the availability of specialist lawyers.

Clause 15 Care plans

19. We are concerned that existing court powers to investigate all aspects of the arrangements for the children are to be removed. The bill amends the Children Act 1989 so that courts focus on the central issue of whether a child should be removed from their parent/s, and local authorities are left to scrutise the detail of care plans.

20. Court scrutiny of care plans is essential to ensure the local authority assessment and planning is found. We believe that children will suffer miscarriages of justice if their cases receive only a cursory glance.

21. The judgement as to whether a child is less damaged by remaining with inadequate parents (with appropriate support) or by being removed to a different home, can depend on the details of the plan. There is a danger that the interests of children could often be at odds with the financial considerations of a local authority charged with scrutinising the details of their care plan.

Clause 17 Repeal of restrictions on divorce and dissolution etc where there are children

22. We do not support this clause which will repeal restrictions on divorce where there are children. Currently the court must be satisfied of the arrangements of children before granting a divorce. We believe that these restrictions should be retained. Arrangements for children may be unclear. Where more parties are self represented as a result of the withdrawal of legal aid for divorce and related matters, an important safeguard will be missed in the vast majority of cases.

February 2013

Prepared 6th March 2013