Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Walmsley: I thank the Minister for that. Before the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, replies, perhaps I can make three small points. The Minister said that the judiciary is not calling for this change. I would give the Mandy Rice-Davies riposte: they would say that, wouldn't they? I would suppose that the courts would by definition think that everything they do is perfect. But as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, said earlier, unless you put the matter in statute, it is going to be patchy; it is not necessarily going to happen all the time. That is why we want "reasonable" in the statute.

I return to the Minister's point on the primacy of the child's best interests and draw his attention to the detail of the wording in subsection (2) of Amendment No. 124A, which states:

The very purpose of this subsection is to achieve the best interests of the child. As we are told by every court, every researcher and every expert in the field, reasonable contact with both parents is in the child's best interests unless there is a good reason to the contrary; and the court has the discretion to take that into account.

I will not say any more. I think that we may need to have another meeting with the Minister before Report to discuss this further. I would certainly welcome that if he is able.

Lord Adonis: Before the noble Baroness withdraws the amendment, I should perhaps clarify a remark that I made earlier about the Family Law Act 1996. I am
17 Oct 2005 : Column GC159
told that the position in that legislation—under Part 2, on the presumption—relates only to couples undergoing a divorce. The presumption would not be wider than that. It is widely accepted that the procedures set out in Part 2 are in fact unworkable. The presumption in Section 11 could not be applied in any event in isolation from Part 2, which is the reason why we would seek to repeal it along with Part 2. As I say, however, it would be outside the scope of this legislation to do so.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: I shall look forward to telling my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern that his 1996 family Act is unworkable.

The paramount interests of the child remain. It must be in the child's best interests, as the Government have agreed, to maintain a meaningful relationship with both parents. The Minister says that, although taking our amendment seriously, the Government think that they would not lead to better outcomes. We fundamentally disagree. Our outcomes seek to keep families out of court and that must be good for the child.

In the Government's parenting plans, two separating parents who cannot agree on anything have to fill in a questionnaire asking them to write 75 or so mini-essays composed jointly, many of them on open-ended discussion on all the matters about which they might disagree, including dozens of things they have not even thought of disagreeing about in addition to many "have we forgotten anything?" or "is there anything else you want to argue about?" areas. So, no problems there then. The plans focus on everything apart from the one issue in dispute: reasonable contact. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Morris of Bolton moved Amendment No. 123:

After section 11P of the Children Act 1989 insert—
(1) The Lord Chancellor shall run a pilot scheme better to protect the post-divorce family ties of children by providing for intervention before the court makes a contact order with respect to the child.
(2) When the court within the pilot scheme has been approached to make a contact order with respect to the child, the court must provide to the parties or to their legal representatives—
(a) the date of the first hearing,
(b) an instruction to attend a meeting with a court-appointed mediator to develop a parenting plan, which plan must include the amount of time each party will spend with the child,
(c) an enjoinder to maintain reasonable contact wherever possible, including an indication of the court's interpretation of reasonable contact,
(d) an explanation that parties who do not file an agreed parenting plan must then—
17 Oct 2005 : Column GC160

(i) attend a parent education meeting,
(ii) attend contact-focused dispute resolution and mediation,
as decided by the court-appointed mediator, before the parties may continue with any application for a contact order, and
(e) a statement that litigation should be the last resort.
(3) Parties who do not wish to ask the court to make an order may also make use of the mediation and education facilities of the pilot scheme.
(4) The pilot scheme must start no later than six months after this Act receives Royal Assent and must run for no longer than two years.
(5) Within six months of the conclusion of the pilot scheme, the Lord Chancellor must lay a report before Parliament on the conduct and outcome of the pilot scheme, including a direct comparison with the outcomes of the family resolutions pilot project.""

The noble Baroness said: This amendment is the culmination of all the issues that we have been discussing in Part 1. It would give the Government the opportunity to test the premise behind our amendments and to compare and contrast it with the Family Resolutions project. We are interested in the Florida-based model that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, mentioned earlier—I am sorry that he is not in his place today. We think that it has much to offer. This pilot would address the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, about the,

However, I feel that I must point out to the Committee that the early interventions pilot project approved by members of the UK judiciary and submitted to the Government in fully designed form on 8 October 2003 had already carefully addressed these concerns. Founded on the presumption of reasonable contact, it was designed by English lawyers and English judges for the English legal system and for Wales. I understand that it was based on the 1997 guidelines of the Association of Family Court Welfare Officers, which sought to promote a presumption of meaningful and reasonable contact. It may help the Committee if I explain briefly the history of the Association of Family Court Welfare Officers guidelines, early intervention, and the Family Resolutions pilot.

Following a complaint in 1995 against a report of the Family Court Welfare Service—the predecessor of CAFCASS—it was admitted in 1996 that the Family Court Welfare Service's officers had no guidelines. So their professional body drew up extensive guidelines based, as I have already mentioned, on the presumption of meaningful and reasonable contact. Building on those guidelines, much work and thought was given to the early interventions project by a number of practitioners in the family law field. This was modelled on the Florida project but took into account how it would work here.

On 21 March 2002, the Royal Society held a conference to look at the early interventions project. A further seminar entitled "Early Intervention—Towards a Pilot Project" was held in April 2002 and chaired by Mrs Justice Bracewell. Her keynote address, which was amplified by Judge John
17 Oct 2005 : Column GC161
Lenderman, a senior family law court judge from Florida, took the theme that long-running disputes might never get under way if there were proficient early interventions. Following this a whole succession of people from Ministers to High Court judges and members and representatives of organisations expressed support for the early interventions pilot. On 8 October 2003, the early intervention project was submitted to the DCA.

However, over the following weeks and months the project that had aroused so much interest and support began to change. The first thing to change was the name. Out went "early interventions" and in came "family resolutions". That would have been fine if the main thrust of the project had remained the same. But that too changed. Questions about this were met with the stock response, "It's the same project, just with a different name". I genuinely believe that that is what Ministers believed. But just as the Minister thinks that the family justice system is delivering the Government's stated aims when it patently is not, so the Family Resolutions project was not what was originally intended.

And so the Family Resolutions pilot started, and as we heard from the Minister last week, it has now drawn to a close and will not go into a second year. Although it will have helped some families, I think that even the greatest optimist could not say that it has been a resounding success. That is a great sadness for all involved. But the greatest sadness for me is that it was such a missed opportunity. If Family Resolutions—or early intervention; call it what you will—had been what everyone originally intended, the story could have been so different.

I shall give the last word on this amendment to Dame Margaret Booth, a retired High Court judge who, speaking at a reception at Lincoln's Inn in May 2002 to mark the publication of the Early Interventions Report said:

I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page