Gwenda Thomas, Deputy Minister for Children and Social Services
This statement builds on a series of previous statements I have issued to update Assembly Members on the developments of the Family Justice Review in respect of family law proceedings (public and private law) in England and Wales.
You will recall that the review identified a number of changes to be made to the Children Act 1989 in order to enable us to reform the family justice system. I have continued to work closely with the Department of Education and Ministry of Justice in delivering these reforms. In March I set up the Family Justice Network for Wales to facilitate the implementation of the reforms and to foster a new environment for change in culture and practice across the arena of players in the family justice system in Wales.
Good progress has been made on a number of levels and on 3 September draft clauses on family justice were introduced into Parliament. This is a key milestone to enable the scrutiny process by the Houses of Parliament, starting with the House of Commons Justice Select Committee. The clauses will be incorporated (as part of wider package of measures) within the Department for Education’s Children and Families Bill.
An outline of the aims of the clauses is set out below. They concern public and private law and will require some major changes to key principles of the Children Act 1989 that have, until now remained unaltered since its introduction in 1991.
The Family Justice Review highlighted delay in the process as a fundamental issue that needed to be tackled. The proposed clauses aim to reduce the duration of cases by introducing more timely and efficient case management, with children’s needs and timescales better reflected in how quickly cases progress. The draft clauses will also help remove duplication, with a more limited role for the courts in scrutinising the care plan and fewer renewals of interim orders.
The proposed clauses seek:
- to put in place a maximum 26 week time limit for the completion of care and supervision proceedings, with the possibility of extending a case for up to eight weeks at a time should that be necessary to resolve proceedings justly;
- to ensure that decisions regarding the timetable for the case are made only after impacts on the welfare of the child and the timetable have been considered;
- to remove duplication by ensuring that Interim Care Orders and Interim Supervision Orders fit with the overall time limit for the case;
- to make clear the courts role in the scrutiny of the care plan, by focusing the court on those issues which are essential to the decision on whether an order should be made, namely the provisions of the care plan that set out the long term plan for the upbringing of the child; and
- to make clear that expert evidence in family proceedings concerning children is permitted only when necessary to resolve the case justly, taking account of factors including the impact on the welfare of the child, and the timetable, duration and conduct of the proceedings, when deciding whether expert evidence is needed.
The reform of the private law system has two main strands: measures to encourage separating parents to settle their disputes out of court wherever possible; and, if court intervention is required, to ensure this can happen quickly and effectively, having regard to the benefit to children of both parents being involved in their upbringing, unless there are safety or other welfare concerns.
The draft clauses relate to three aspects of these reforms:
- a requirement for a person applying to court about children’s care arrangements or seeking a financial remedy to receive information about options for dispute resolution at a Mediation and Information Assessment Meeting.
- the replacement of residence and contact orders by a new order – the child arrangements order – to help focus attention on children’s needs and lessen the perception of ‘winners and losers’ in court cases.
- measures to streamline the court process for divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership so that uncontested cases can be dealt with administratively.
The proposed clause on experts is also intended to apply to private law children proceedings.
Excluded from the clauses but part of the reform includes proposals to; promote shared parenting, strengthening of enforcement sanctions available to courts in relation to private law and in respect of public law; contact between children and birth parents before and after adoptions. Draft clauses for these measures will be published later in the autumn following consideration of the responses to the consultation.
The proposed clauses (as set out above) will also affect devolved areas of child welfare and court systems in Wales, as well as the operations of CAFCASS Cymru and local authorities. There is an overlap with the proposed Social Services Bill for Wales which I will be introducing into the Assembly in early 2013 to effect my vision for a Sustainable Social Services built around an integrated service to enable People to maximise their wellbeing.
I will continue to work closely with Whitehall in the development of the Children and Families Bill and the Department for Health Consultation on the draft Care and Support Bill for adults in England to ensure that there are no inconsistencies across our administration or barriers to advancing our distinct Welsh policies and commitment set out in the Programme for Government.
I am keen for this engagement to continue, and will continue to update Assembly Members with progress on the Family Justice Reform and would be happy to discuss directly with Assembly Members any issues relating to these clauses or more broadly.