#NQ4 Family Court FoCus

Hello to all members.

A special open meeting of the Family Court Section Executive Committee was held directly before the main Napo AGM this year. Four motions were debated and passed. The detail of these has been sent to all FCS members directly by the co-chairs of the SEC. The meeting was attended and addressed by Ian Lawrence, general secretary and by Dean Rogers, assistant general secretary. A formal AGM is to be held early in the New Year. There will be vacancies on the various Family Court Committees to be filled then. Members are encouraged to stand for these.

Family Court Section had a very interesting professional slot at AGM this year. Our speakers at this were Lord Fred Ponsonby (magistrate and co-chair of the Justice Unions Family Court Parliamentary Group); Liz Saville- Roberts MP (chair of Justice Unions and the Family Court Unions Parliamentary Groups) and Steve Cavalier (solicitor and chief executive of Thompsons Solicitors).

There was discussion about how women are treated in the family court compared to  criminal courts in relation to domestic violence and abuse. Lord Ponsonby pointed out that family court was primary responsible for the welfare of the child, but was surprised to hear some areas allowed cross examination of domestic violence victims by perpetrators.

Lord Ponsonby paid tribute to the work of Cafcass officers and their ability to provide practical solutions to difficulties and to resolve entrenched disputes. It may be that the quality of safeguarding letters quite often allows dispute resolution to occur at first
hearings.

The extent to which Cafcass reports are risk adverse was considered. For example recommendations for fact finding in respect of historical domestic violence in situations where there has been contact in the intervening period. Liz Saville Roberts asked whether there was any correlation between workloads and risk aversion. The answer to that is not clear.

It was suggested that there may be situations where, if resources were available, further exploration of issues, for example observation of contact may lead to more positive recommendations.

Steve Cavalier commented that the work that has been done by Peers, including Lord Ponsonby, in working to amend provisions of the Trade Union Act was applauded.

It was noted that civil courts made a profit of £95 million a year. Members were very surprised to hear this as it is usually thought that there is a shortage of funding rather than a profit.

The Lord Chancellor has said that Family Courts should be places of “clarity and hope”.

The issue about court closures and the difficulty for parties in dispute potentially having to travel long distances by public transport was considered. We discussed the trend of removing legal aid and it was suggested that this is a “class issue”, where only the wealthy have access to justice and that there is inequality where there is one party without representation.

The advantages and limitations of the use of video conferencing technology were debated. It was suggested that the parties at the least populated site may be disadvantaged and having a vulnerable party in that position would not be good practice.

The potential within the Children and Social Work Bill for statutory child care responsibilities to be outsourced by local authorities to voluntary or even private organisations was discussed with a view being expressed that this would not save money and the only reason why such actions may occur would be as part of an “ideological drive” by the Government. (An emergency motion was passedregarding this on the following day – see below.)

Consideration was also given to changes to the regulatory processes for children’s social workers, which is also proposed within the bill to replace HCPC with direct regulation by the government. There is concern about this. No other such system is in place for other
organisations.

The impact of dramatically increased public law applications and the strain on the Court system and Cafcass was considered. It has been recognised that Cafcass cannot continue to meet the demand for extra work without extra resources as staff are working extremely hard and over their hours.

The following emergency motion was proposed and passed at AGM:

This AGM is extremely concerned to learn, only yesterday, that Clause 29 of the Government’s Children and Social Work Bill published last week in committee will give powers to exempt local Councils from their current legal duties affecting all social care services for children, including Child Protection, family support, the care system, the
leaving care services and services for disabled children. It would expose children to a “postcode lottery” of protection.

This motion will impact on all Napo members in both probation work and the Family Court Section. This AGM instructs:
i) The Napo Professional committee and Campaigning committee to work together with the Family Court Committee, to join the Together for Children Campaign to oppose the Bill which is before the House of Lords in October.
ii) To campaign with the Parliamentary Family Justice Committee to highlight the dangers inherent in this proposed change and to oppose the Bill.

Proposed by Family Court Section.

Jay Barlow

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