A public health approach to family justice

Children|Family Law|February 6th 2019

I was interested to read the other day that the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory has published a report which explores what a ‘public health approach’ to family justice would look like. A new approach to family justice? That sounded interesting. Intrigued, I downloaded and eagerly read the report.

I’m not sure that I am that much wiser. Despite the report being entitled ‘What could a public health approach to family justice look like?’, I have struggled to find a clear answer (in defence of the report’s author I always struggle to read papers of an ‘academic’ nature, so perhaps it is just me!). Still, the following seems to be the gist of the idea.

The first thing to note is that the idea relates to private law children disputes, rather than to the entire family justice system, although the report indicates that it could also relate to public law matters (i.e. cases where the state intervenes in the upbringing of a child).

The central point of the idea seems to be early intervention. In other words, identify those cases where children are at risk of harm as a result of family breakdown. As I understand it this would be done by health professionals and schools flagging up cases (I’m not sure that schools would appreciate such an extra burden being placed upon them), and by Cafcass getting involved in cases earlier.

Once a child at risk of harm is identified, then the appropriate help would be made available, including if appropriate relationship help to prevent family breakdown at all, and help with parenting issues. Other types of help might be to address domestic abuse issues, or to address other problems within the family, such as mental health issues and substance abuse.

In this way, cases could be ‘caught’ before they reach the court system. But where court intervention is appropriate, the idea is that high-risk cases be ‘fast-tracked’, for example by having a time limit placed upon them.

To give just a little bit more detail, the report says that:

“Effective mechanisms for assessment and referral need to be complemented by the availability of a range of services and interventions that have been shown to be effective.  These can range from primary prevention interventions that seek to: prevent problems identified early from escalating; ‘universal’ information and education programmes to promote wellbeing, or tackle underlying causes at source; and restorative or therapeutic interventions that seek to reduce harm once it is experienced.”

The report mentions a couple of programmes that already exist (the Separated Parents Information Programme and the Domestic Abuse Perpetrator Programme), and other programmes in development: a pilot of a more intensive co-parenting programme for parents with more entrenched issues, and a Co-Parent Hub in partnership with the OnePlusOne relationship charity offering online resources to help couples improve their ability to co-parent effectively following separation.

The report concludes that “the family justice system already has, or is starting to build, the essential building blocks that would be needed for a public health approach”. However:

“…even in the health arena we are still learning what an effective approach to developing evidence-based public health interventions in complex systems (which surely include the family justice) needs to look like given the difficulties of randomising trials in whole populations.  The emerging thinking is that we need to be better at asking how an intervention contributes to improving a system, rather than just asking whether it works to fix a specific problem, to make better use of ‘natural experiments’, and to focus on longer term outcomes to which a system contributes.  The answers to these questions require investment in data, and better dialogue to understand how the different parts of the wider system can better connect, suggesting the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory has started down the right track.”

OK, that lost me in the first sentence, but the author seems to be saying that more work needs to be done to determine exactly how a public health approach to family justice should operate.

So what do I think? Well, I’m all for anything that may help to avoid or reduce the adverse effect of family breakdown upon children, and I don’t want to put a damper on this, but I have to say that that I am a little sceptical, in two ways. Firstly, that such a system could actually identify many children at risk in advance of cases going to court, and secondly because the system would require the input of substantial public funds which (as I think the author acknowledges) are likely to be difficult to prise out of government, particularly in these times of austerity.

You can read the full report here.

Author: John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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