The House of Lords set up a parliamentary post-legislative scrutiny committee in January 2022 to inquire into the effectiveness of the Children and Families Act 2014. One of the several criticisms that appear in the committee’s report (published today) is the delay in such scrutiny, which no one was able to explain to them.
Basically, the 2014 Act:
- Changed adoption law in England
- Reformed special educational needs law in England
- Introduced some important changes in family courts in England and Wales, mainly arising from the Norgrove review, including: the 26 weeks limit on care proceedings; reducing the use of independent experts in care cases; introducing MIAMs; and creating the presumption of ongoing contact with a non-resident parent being in a child’s welfare
- Provided for shared parental leave.
A lot for the Committee to cover. The report is 116 pages long and the Committee heard from 44 witnesses and received 150 written submissions. It consulted with other groups by various methods.
Here is a brief outline of the Committee’s recommendations that relate to family courts – we’ll come back to the report when we’ve had time to read it in full.
The Committee calls on government to:
- establish an outcome focussed task force, accountable to the Secretary of State, dedicated to addressing ethnic and racial disparities in the adoption system;
- improve post-placement support for adopters and kinship carers;
- develop a safe and modern digital contact system for post adoption.
The government should address the creeping delays in public family law cases through top-level leadership and investigation by the Family Justice Board.
The Committee heard strong views on presumption of parental involvement but did not believe it had heard enough evidence to recommend its repeal. It recommended government:
- produce an impartial advice website for separating couples, providing clear information on the family justice system;
- replace MIAMs and the mediation voucher schemes with a universal voucher scheme for a general advice appointment
- review the current approach to empowering the voice of the child in family law proceedings
General criticisms and comments
With regard to transparency and family justice, the report states:
‘Improved data collection and data sharing are necessary to track the performance of the family justice system, identify regional inequalities and ensure consistent outcomes for children and their families. The current absence of sufficient data on court outcomes is an evident failure of the system, and without improved data the
Government is at risk of making major policy changes which have far reaching impacts on the lives of children and families without a sound evidentiary basis. The Government should improve its collection and sharing of data on the family justice system’ [para 128]
The report makes many other observations – beyond the courts – about the lack of family support and of mental health services for children. The introduction says:
‘Throughout our inquiry, we have sought to hear directly from children, young people and their families. We are grateful for their time and insight, as they shared with us the challenges they face and how they feel let down by the very systems designed to support them. The welfare of children and young people should be the Government’s paramount concern when developing policies in this area. We urge them not to allow another eight years to pass before they make the improvements which are so demonstrably necessary.’ [page 5]
‘At the time of receiving Royal Assent, the Children and Families Act 2014 was described as a “landmark” piece of legislation. However, successive governments have failed adequately to monitor its implementation. In some instances, departments have made no meaningful effort to evaluate impact. This is unacceptable. When an Act receives Royal Assent, the Government should publish a post-legislative scrutiny plan. This should include when a post legislative memorandum will be published, if applicable, and details of the metrics which will be used to evaluate each section and what data will need to be collected to do so.’ [paras 34-35]