The law in England and Wales is firm in its focus on the best interests of the children unlucky enough be caught up in court cases. Part 1, section 1 of key legislation the Children Act 1989 reads:
“When a court determines any question with respect to—
(a)the upbringing of a child; or
(b)the administration of a child’s property or the application of any income arising from it,
the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.”
Such an explicit and central focus on the welfare of the child is highly commendable and perhaps not something that every legal system in the world can boast. Without such a black and white principle, it would be all too easy to overlook the overlook the interests and views of children involved in family law proceedings, letting their voices be drowned out by those of the adults around them.
But we do not live in a perfect world – unfortunately for all of us! – and in an overstretched and overworked court system, reality sometimes falls short of principle. A story in yesterday’s Observer illustrates the kind of shortcuts increasingly seen in the hard-pressed family courts these days. Journalist Jamie Doward examines a new report from the Child Protection All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), a group of MPs concerned with child welfare issues. Their report highlights the sad fact that many children involved in care cases never speak to the judge whose job it is to rule on whether they should be taken from their families and placed into care.
Of course, this lack of contact does not mean such judges do not do carefully consider children’s welfare in their rulings. But what they consider will unavoidably be their perception of the child’s interests, filtered and at a distance.
A significant number of the judges presiding over family cases are not specialists in family law, the APPG also reports. Such judges often end up relying almost exclusively on the assessments of social workers, professionals who may be just as hard-pressed as the judges.
Meanwhile, the social workers report often feeling intimidated by those self-same judges, and hugely under pressure themselves thanks to the highly interventionist approach to problem families now taken by many local authorities. By March last year, the number of children in care had exceeded 67,000 – 13 per cent up on March the previous year. Some of the social workers responsible for drawing up court reports have seen their expected workloads more than double.
What’s more – and this is an interesting comment from MPs – last week’s publication of the Children and Families Bill does not go far enough, the APPG report claims, and it will not address the serious strains on an acutely overworked family justice system.
It’s a sobering read. I do like the group’s recommendation that judges should – as a matter of routine – ask to meet children involved in family law cases. and talk to the youngsters about how they see their situation and what they would like to happen.
It’s a nice image and could only do good. But will it happen? I’m afraid I doubt it. With many courts already struggling with ballooning case loads and even the ‘aspirational’ 26 week timetable for family law cases proposed by Mr Justice Ryder, few will welcome further demands on their time, however much good such demands might do.