Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Posts Tagged ‘family justice system

Domestic Abuse Bill 2020 goes to the Lords: Integrated Domestic Abuse Courts pilot announced

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Reforms in the ways in which cases involving domestic abuse are to be handled is another area of the current Government’s policy programme that is still being taken forward despite all the media attention on dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. (There is of course a link in that reports of incidents of domestic abuse have risen substantially as a side effect of people being placed in lockdown as the first response to attempting to limit the impact of the pandemic.)

The Domestic Abuse Bill 2020 (noted in this blog (21 May 2020) has completed its journey through the House of Commons  on 6 July 2020. It has now been sent to the House of Lords where is received its formal first reading in the Lords the following day.

In my earlier blog I set out the primary objectives of the new bill, so will not repeat them here. There are, however, still concerns about the scope of the bill. In particular, it is argued that people with unsettled immigration status (who are not permitted to have access to services provided through public funding) will remain at particular risk, despite the overall improvements to the system which will be introduced when the Bill becomes law. There are also concerns that levels of funding needed to ensure that services can be provided to the victisms of domestic violence and abuse will not be as generous as they should be.

Another development, which builds on the prospective changes in the Bill, was announced on 25 June 2020 when the Government published Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases. This was the report of an independent study, led by three leading family law academics, supported by 10 panel members drawn from the Ministry of Justice, the judiciary, social work, womens’ aid and Respect. Commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, the report examined the experience of participants in private law children’s cases. (These are cases in which the parents of children take proceedings in order to determine arrangements relating to the custody of children.)

It consists of two significant documents:

  • the analysis of responses to a widespread consulation on the issue;
  • a detailed review of the existing published research on the issue.

The key issues that emerged from the consultation responses were:

  • a feeling that abuse is systematically minimised,
  • children’s voices not being heard,
  • allegations being ignored, dismissed or disbelieved,
  • inadequate assessment of risk,
  • traumatic court processes,
  • perceived unsafe child arrangements, and
  • abusers exercising continued control through repeat litigation and the threat of repeat litigation.

These issues were underpinned by the following key themes in the evidence that was reviewed:

Resource constraints; resources available have been inadequate to keep up with increasing demand in private law children proceedings, and more parties are coming to court unrepresented.
The pro-contact culture; respondents felt that courts placed undue priority on ensuring contact with the non-resident parent, which resulted in systemic minimisation of allegations of domestic abuse.
Working in silos; submissions highlighted differences in approaches and culture between criminal justice, child protection (public law) and private law children proceedings, and lack of communication and coordination between family courts and other courts and agencies working with families, which led to contradictory decisions and confusion.
An adversarial system; with parents placed in opposition on what is often not a level playing field in cases involving domestic abuse, child sexual abuse and self-representation, with little or no involvement of the child.

A substantial list of recommendations was made to address these issues. The first of these related to the basic design principles for private law children’s proceedings. The panel stated that these principles should be:

  • A culture of safety and protection from harm
  • An approach which is investigative and problem solving
  • Resources which are sufficient and used more productively
  • With a more coordinated approach between the different parts of the system

Responding to the recommendations, the Government has announced an Implementation Plan. From a legal system perspective, the key decision is to start a pilot project of the ‘Integrated Domestic Abuse Court’.

Two different models will be tested and evaluated:

1. A ‘one family one judge’ approach in which certain concurrent family and criminal proceedings involving domestic abuse are heard by the same cross-ticketed judge, with the aim of reducing the need for victims to re-tell their stories and promoting a more joined up approach to the handling of such cases between the jurisdictions.

2. An ‘investigative’ approach to the family courts. This will explore ways to move away from the current ‘adversarial’ system to adopt … a more investigative approach [which] will focus on ways to improve gathering and assessing appropriate evidence. Specific emphasis will be placed on ensuring the voice of the child is heard effectively. [The Government] will seek to tackle problems more effectively through the better provision and signposting of support services, while a review stage during the pilot will aim to increase long term sustainability and reduce returns to court.

The Government intends to adopt a phased approach to both pilots. The first phase will involve a period of designing and small-scale trialling of potential solutions to aspects of the detailed pilot. This would be followed by the second phase, the full pilot of both approaches, the design of which will take account of the trial findings from the first phase.

The Covid-19 pandemic presents particular challenges to the immediate launch of this pilot. Both the family and criminal courts have had to alter drastically the way in which cases are processed at this time, and the results of any pilot undertaken in such circumstances are likely to be less representative and informative than they would usually be. In addition, courts and practitioners are under considerable pressure to ensure that as many cases as possible are heard at this time.

The Government therefore needs to keep the start date of the pilot under review dependent on the duration and impact of Covid-19, but will commence it as soon as it is practical and safe to do so. The Government will work with a range of stakeholders to develop the pilot plans further, and then publish additional information and a start date for Phase 1 as soon as the current situation permits.

For the version of the Domestic Abuse Bill which has gone to the House of Lords, see https://services.parliament.uk/Bills/2019-21/domesticabuse.html

For the reports of the study Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases, see https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/assessing-risk-of-harm-to-children-and-parents-in-private-law-children-cases#history

The Implementation Plan is also available at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/assessing-risk-of-harm-to-children-and-parents-in-private-law-children-cases#history

Covid 19 and the English Legal System (10): Family Justice

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In an earlier blog, Covid 19 and the English Legal System (8): guidance on new working practices, published on 3 July 2020, I drew attention to a resource from the Judiciary, setting out guidance to different courts and tribunals on how to manage cases in the current Covid 19 environment.

This note draws attention to just one of the documents that is to be found on that website. The Remote Access Family Court, (version 5), written by one of the Family Court judges, Mr Justice MacDonald, is a detailed statement of the ways in which in the context of the work of the Family Court, remote access hearings may be conducted, the sorts of proceedings for which remote hearings might be appropriate; the considerations to be taken into account when deciding whether a case should proceed remotely or not.

The primary impetus for the production of the document is the need to keep the business of the family courts going, particularly where matters must be dealt with urgently. The document acknowledges that the continuing need for social distancing is likely to mean that the practices and procedures considered in this report are like to retain their relevance, at least for some months ahead.

However, while acknowledging that aspects of the practices and procedures currently being used may be retained once the problems associated with the Covid 19 pandemic have eased, it states in terms that it should not be assumed that changes currently being adopted will necessarily be retained into the future.

What is clearly needed is for HMCTS to gather robust evidence about how innovations in practice and procedure are working, which takes into account not only the views of judges and lawyers, but also – crucially – the views of parties to proceedings who have experienced the new procedures in operation. New ways of working which work well should be retained; those which do not should be altered or abandoned.

A very first attempt to gather evidence about the new system in operation was made in April 2020, when the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory was asked to undertake a rapid consultation on the use of remote hearings in the family justice system. This produced some preliminary information which helped consideration of when remote hearings might be possible and when remote access should not be used. For example, there was a general feeling that video hearings are more satisfactory than telephone hearings. There was also worry about some of the difficulties associated with the use of different technologies. But these findings are acknowledged to be only preliminary. Much more work needs to be done before a rounded assessment can be made, on which future policy may be based.

What the pandemic has done – and this comment applies to the whole of the justice system, not just family justice – has created the conditions in which new ways of working can be tested. It would be really disappointing if positive lessons learned from these experiences cannot be captured by a proper research programme, which would help the development of future policies for dispute resolution in courts and tribunals.

The report by Mr Justice MacDonald is at https://www.judiciary.uk/announcements/updated-version-of-the-remote-family-access-court-released/

The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory consultation is at https://www.nuffieldfjo.org.uk/coronavirus-family-justice-system/family-courts

Written by lwtmp

July 7, 2020 at 11:38 am

Transformation: Courts and Tribunals, 2022: HMCTS and MoJ respond to the Public Accounts Committee

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I noted in 2018 the critical report from the National Audit Office (see this blog June 2018) and the subsequent report (which I labelled ‘brutal’) from the Public Accounts Committee (see this blog October 2018) on the courts and tribunals transformation programme.

Well, now the Ministry of Justice and HM Courts and Tribunals Service have come back with a series of replies, setting out the progress that has been made with the transformation programme, and setting out targets for the following 6 months.

Between November 2018 and February 2019, MoJ and HMCTS published no fewer than 6 reports, each one responding individually to the six principal criticisms made by the Public Accounts Committee.

The most fundamental question is whether the timeframe for the delivery of the transformation programme is being adhered to. The report on Recommendation 1 – which deals with this question – acknowledges that parts of the programme have not yet been started while listing a substantial body of completed work.

Other responses deal with:

  • the impact of the transformation programme on users;
  • engagement with stakeholders;
  • the financial implications of the transformation programme on the wider justice system;
  • evaluating the impact of the reform programme on access to justice and the fairness of the justice system; and
  • balancing the portfolio of change projects to ensure that there is some flexibility and an ability to respond to financial pressures.

Interestingly, less than a month after the publication of the latest of these reports a Press Release in March stated that at least some aspects of the Transformation programme will not be completed until 2023. (See https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/breaking-hmcts-delays-1bn-courts-reform-by-a-year/5069501.article)

There is a lot of detail in the reports. They can be found by going to https://www.gov.uk/government/news/response-to-public-accounts-committee-transforming-courts-and-tribunals

This links to each of the six individual responses.

In January 2019, the Justice Select Committee announced that it too would be conducting an inquiry into the Courts and Tribunals Reform programme. See https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/justice-committee/inquiries/parliament-2017/court-and-tribunals-reform-inquiry-17-19/

It is right that such a major reform programme should be carefully scrutinised by MPs. They can help to ensure that the transformation, that I think is needed, is delivered.

 

 

 

 

Transforming family justice: current projects – progress reports

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There are currently six projects associated with the Family Justice system.

1.Online divorce

This project aims to deliver a transformed national end-to-end digital service for individuals and their legal representatives to make an application to legally end their marriage or civil partnership and resolve associated financial issues.

The first stage – supporting applications for uncontested divorce, and allowing digital upload of marriage certificates – was rolled out nationally from 30 April 2018. By mid-September 2018, over 13,500 on-line applications had been received. Fewer than 1% of applications have contained errors that meant they needed to be resubmitted, compared to over 40% of the old paper forms.

The Government is now testing an online system, to be used by legal representatives, for Financial Remedy consent orders.

2 Online probate for personal applicants

This project aims to provide a digital, user-designed application form and a new case management system to actively manage probate applications. The project will create a simpler, digital process for users, as well as reducing the cost and time spent processing applications. To date the service has received 3,862 applications with just over 3,194 grants of probate having been issued.

3 Family public law

This project will make the family public law process more efficient, ensuring the court, parties and their representatives have access to the right information, at the right time, to help decide the best outcomes for children involved in public law cases.

In particular, it will allow evidence to be submitted and shared electronically and cases can be managed much more securely and effectively.

It will also allow orders to be written and produced in real time in court (in many cases), meaning that everyone leaves with immediate clarity on what has been agreed.

The first parts of the new system to be developed are now being tested.

4.Adoption

Following the first stage of the work on family public law, there is a project to digitise the adoption process for both public and private law cases, again developing systems to manage these cases more securely and effectively. Once all the parts are complete, they will fit together so that cases can move seamlessly from one to another.

The plan is for this work to start imminently and to run alongside the public law service development.

5. Court of Protection

This project will be to enable people using the Court of Protection to initiate and manage their cases online. This work will begin in Spring 2019.

6. Private Family Law

Later, the project will move to develop and implement systems and processes to enable private family law litigants to initiate and manage their cases online – again, fitting together seamlessly. This work is expected to begin in Summer 2019.

This information has been derived and adapted from Reform Update Autumn 2018, published by HMCTS, and available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/744235/Reform_Update_issue_2_September_2018.pdf

Written by lwtmp

October 3, 2018 at 3:06 pm

Transforming the Justice System: the Prisons and Courts Bill 2017

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Enromous changes to the ways in which courts – both criminal and civil – and tribunals operate have already been foreshadowed in a number of policy documents published during 2016. Parts 2 to 4 of the Prisons and Courts Bill contain provisions that will give statutory authority to the changes that have been proposed.

The headline provisions may be set out as follows:

Part 2 creates new procedures in civil, family, tribunal and criminal matters.

It makes changes to court procedures in the Crown Court and magistrates’ courts to make processes and case management more efficient.

It allows some offenders charged with summary-only, non-imprisonable offences to be convicted and given standard penalties using a new online procedure.

It extends the use of live audio and video links, and ‘virtual’ hearings where no parties are present in the court room but attend by telephone or video conferencing facilities.

It makes provision which will apply across the civil, criminal and tribunal jurisdictions to ensure public participation in proceedings which are heard virtually (by the streaming of hearings), including the creation of new criminal offences to guard against abuse, for example by recording such stramed hearings.

It creates a new online procedure rules committee that will be able to create new online procedure rules in relation to the civil, tribunal and family jurisdictions.

It bans cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses  – in particular those who have been the subject of domestic abuse – in certain family cases.

It confers the power to make procedure rules for employment tribunals and the Employment Appeal Tribunal on the Tribunal Procedure Committee and extends the membership of the Committee to include an employment law practitioner and judge or non-legal member.

 

Part 3 contains measures relating to the organisation and functions of courts and tribunals.

It extends the role of court and tribunal staff authorised to exercise judicial functions giving the relevant procedure rules committees the power to authorise functions in their respective jurisdictions.

It abolishes local justice areas, enabling magistrates to be appointed on a national basis, not just to a specific local justice area.

It replaces statutory declarations with statements of truth in certain traffic and air quality enforcement proceedings.

It makes reforms to the arrangements for the composition of employment tribunals and the Employment Appeal Tribunal.

It enables the High Court to make attachment of earnings orders for the recovery of money due under a judgment debt, as far as practicable, on the same basis as in the County Court.

Part 4 contains measures relating to the judiciary and the Judicial Appointments Commission.

It enables more flexible deployment of judges by enabling them to sit in different jurisdictions.

It brings the arrangements for the remuneration of judges and members of employment tribunals – currently undertaken by the Secretary of State for Employment – under the remit of the Lord Chancellor.

It rationlises the roles of  judges in leadership positions who will support a reformed courts and tribunals system. (This includes provision to abolish the statutory post of Justice Clerk; this role will continue, but those qualified to be Clerks will also be able to undertake analogous work in other court/tribunal contexts.)

It  gives the Judicial Appointments Commission the power to carry out more work (not directly related to judicials appointments) on a cost-recovery basis.

Source, Explanatory Notes to the Prisons and Courts Bill 2017, available at https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2016-2017/0145/en/17145en02.htm

Keeping the reform of Family Justice under review – the work of the President of the Family Division

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A notable development in the programme of change currently happening in the Family Justice system is the very personal attention being given to the programme by Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Court. He publishes a regular series of newsletters, which he now calls ‘The View’, setting out progress both on matters of the reform of family law, and the processes of the courts.

He clearly supports the aims and objectives of the Norgrove recommendations for change and is anxious that practice and procedures are made more efficient. He is clearly concerned about the resources available to the Family Justice system, but does not think that more resources is the answer to all the problems of the system. He wants new approaches to be developed as well.

One particular development of which he has become a strong supporter is the notion of ‘problem-solving courts’. The theory is that many families that get caught up in the care system do so because there are aspects of life style – especially alcohol and substance abuse – which result in children coming to the attention of social service departments. The argument is that if you offer a programme of support for the parent(s) who are not coping well, to change their lives, this could result in few children being brought within the case system – with all the cost that this entails.

Some years ago, Judge Nicholas Crichton established a new type of court – the Family Drug and Addiction Court (FDAC) – which sought to put these ideas into practice.

In 2015, a FDAC National Unit was created, which seeks to promote the development of these courts in different parts of the country. In its first year it had helped more than 15 such courts to come into existence.

Sir James Munby is extremely impressed with their work and a powerful advocate for their further development.

To read Sir James Munby’s newsletters/Views go to https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/publications/view-from-presidents-chambers/

To read more about the FDAC Unit go to http://fdac.org.uk/

 

Written by lwtmp

November 9, 2016 at 3:08 pm

Transforming the English Legal System: Family Justice

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The Consultation Paper, Transforming our Justice System, has little to say on further reforms to the Family Justice system.

It has been undergoing radical change over the last few years, following publication of the report by David Norgrove and the creation of the single family court. The Government clearly wants work in progress to continue.

Progress with these reforms is kept under active review by the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, who now issues regular newsletters on developments – the latest is the subject of a separate blog item.

Written by lwtmp

October 5, 2016 at 5:13 pm

Family Justice Research

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Big changes are in progress in the family justice system. Researchers, both within government and outside, are engaged in a number of research projects designed to examine how the family justice system is working. Indeed, a number of recommendations in the Family Justice Review related to the need to better share relevant research and good practice throughout the family justice system. The government accepted these recommendations and agreed to work with the Family Justice Board to help provide social research evidence to family justice professionals and wider stakeholders.

The Family Justice Research and Analysis team in Ministry of Justice Analytical Services are supporting this through their Family Justice Research Bulletin. The 5th volume of the Bulletin was published in January 2015. The 4th is also available on-line but numbers 1-3 are not. It is planned that further bulletins will be published roughly every six months.

Given the controversies that surround the operation of the family justice system, the undertaking and publication of high quality empirical research is obviously necessary to ensure that the system is working as intented.

One of the principal findings in the present edition is that public knowledge of what is happening to the family justice system is very sketchy; and that government hopes for more use of mediation are still thwarted by a lack of willingness of parties to participate in mediation. There also seems to be a lack of understanding that while legal aid for family matters has been cut back, it is still available for mediation.

Those interested in the research discussed in the bulletin can find full details at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/family-justice-research-bulletin-5-january-2015

Bulletin 4 is at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/family-justice-research-bulletin-4-mar-2014

Written by lwtmp

February 3, 2015 at 12:44 pm