Yesterday I found myself irritated by something that a Government minister said. Whilst there is, of course, nothing unusual in that, this particular irritation was compounded by it being repeated continually in the media.
As everyone will now know, yesterday brought in huge changes to our family justice system, including the new single family court and reforms included in the Children and Families act 2014. The popular media was full of the news, and it was virtually impossible to turn on the TV or radio without hearing about it.
Naturally, the Government could not pass up the opportunity for a self-congratulatory press release, to take all the credit and remind us of what a wonderful job they are doing to reform our justice system (I’m joking, of course). In fact, so keen were they to take credit that the press release was issued not just by the Ministry of Justice but also by the Department for Education, both eager to capture some of the glory.
It was a particular quote within that press release that was the cause of my irritation. It came from Justice Minister Simon Hughes, who said:
“These reforms mark a significant moment for the family justice system, when the proposals made by the Family Justice Review are delivered. But this is not the end of the process I want to continue to work with David Norgrove, so we have a family justice system which has the welfare of children at its heart.”
The implication, of course, is that prior to the reforms we had a family justice system that did not have the welfare of children at its heart.
What utter nonsense.
As any student studying family law will tell you, one of the first things they are taught about is what we know as the ‘paramountcy principle’, presently contained in section 1 of the Children Act 1989:
“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.”
It can hardly be clearer than that – the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration. This principle guides judges, social workers, Cafcass officers, lawyers and all those involved in the family justice system.
Section 1 came into force in 1991, but the principle pre-dates that. It was included, in a similar form, in section 1 of the Guardianship of Minors Act 1971.
So, to suggest that the welfare of children will only be at the heart of the family justice system once the reforms have been completed is, at best, misleading. It is also a slur on those working in the system who have always considered the welfare of children to be paramount.
I am not, of course, saying that nothing has changed since 1971. What was then considered to be best for a child’s welfare might not be considered so nowadays. However, the basic principle is the same, and no new reforms can bring the child’s welfare closer to the heart of the system.