Keehan J chaired this year’s open meeting at pace and had pretty much pinned down where we are on publication of the Covert Recording and other guidance from Working Groups before even getting through ‘Matters Arising’:
- Covert Recording Guidance – Comments from the Information Commissioner on draft guidance are just in. Publication expected by the end of July 2023 (or October), once those are incorporated
- Medical Treatment – Final version being formatted. Publication expected by end of July 2023
- Financial Remedies – Updates to 2018 Guidance on Financial Needs on Divorce, and 2016 Guide for litigants in person on sorting finances on divorce are on track for publication by end of July 2023
- Death by Suicide during family proceedings – Complete, with publication expected by end of July 2023, possibly by Monday
- Domestic Abuse – Guidance to be finalised and published now, despite the ever-changing landscape, on the basis this will need to be updated every 3 months as well as for major changes in case law
- Responding to allegations of alienating behaviour –Draft guidance is about to go out for consultation to October 2023. Publication intended by year-end
- Experts – Not a guidance-producing Working Group. Lots going on, from training events to symposium planning for October 2024 in Cardiff or Manchester. Litigants In Person is a similarly stand-alone permanent FJC priority.
The various Guidance will be published at the FJC page here. We’ll add links to this post when we see them.
Two new working groups
Two new Working Groups are launched but not yet on the website. The Disclosure to Children and Young People Working Group are finalising process maps to help young people and others with complex processes to access records. To be presented in final form at the next FJC meeting. The terms of business for the new Neurodiversity in the Family Justice System Working Group were also approved. There was also talk of updating the guidance on children meeting judges once policy changes affecting that are clarified.
Jaime Craig and Melanie Carew’s terms of service are over. Recruitment is well underway for a new child mental health specialist, junior counsel, a District Judge and a child mediator.
Family Justice Board Update
The Family Justice Council (FJC) is as an interdisciplinary group aiming to monitor the family justice system, provide interdisciplinary independent expert advice, produce guidance for consistency of approach across the system; and host events to inform and inspire. Its members are drawn from the judiciary, legal professions, health professions, civil service, children’s social care, academia, and those with lived experience of the FJS. It also aims to act as a critical friend to the Family Justice Board (FJB) that sits above it.
The Family Justice Board is chaired by MOJ and DfE Ministers. Its members include Cafcass CEO, Jacky Tiotto; the President, Sir Andrew McFarlane; and senior members of the ADCS and HMCTS. Although as Sir Andrew clarified, the reality is that there is no joined up family justice ‘system’, making communication between the components of the ‘non system’ (Courts, Children’s Services, Police, Cafcass etc) critically important. The Family Justice Board has never worked well, he said, chaired as it is by Ministers, who have changed at an alarming rate in recent years, often not even managing consecutive meetings. Albeit the two current Ministers are engaged and interested including between meetings. Fortunately the Board sits above a much more active and agile structure since Covid catapulted the leaders of the various ‘non-system’ parts into weekly meetings that they have retained. The Family Justice Council sits beneath that, complementing it with the substance on the substantive issues coming before the family courts).
Neil Barcoe has been replaced by Luke Taylor (MOJ deputy director) as the MOJ rep on the Family Justice Council who updates on the work of the Family Justice Board. Barcoe is now MOJ deputy director of policy.
The primary function of the Board, reminded Taylor, is performance oversight. Including through new Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) tracking numbers of children in the system (some early signs of improvement), and timeliness (still causing difficulty, particularly in private law cases).
The aim is an improved national Family Justice Board overseeing high performing local Family Justice Boards, with better visibility of family justice system performance data. Including a new dashboard tool for local partners enabling them to make monthly comparisons of their performance against neighbours.
Council members acknowledged performance variation at local family justice board level and backed the move to reinvigorate them. But also flagged the need for good communication with local boards; for the MOJ to have a grasp of local factors affecting performance variability in order to analyse performance data adequately; and for practical support such as mentoring by more established local boards given the amount of work required. Taylor said the department does understand that a range of factors will impact performance but are looking to enhance local performance within existing resources.
The FJC Annual Debate
Cohabitation is now the topic for the annual debate. The exact debate question will be decided between meetings.
Q & A
All a bit too speedy for me to fully capture the carefully crafted detailed answers read out by council members without a recording or shorthand. Hopefully the Q&A will make it to the minutes. I noted the following on some key issues of the day:
- Whilst the limited scope of funding for pre proceedings legal advice (with the costs of expert reports excluded) is a government matter, the FJC think this disincentivises Public Law Outline (PLO) creating risk of delays and increased costs further down the line. And acknowledges that reducing care numbers and improving timeliness in public law cases through front loading at PLO stage, places additional costs on local authorities.
- They don’t support mandatory mediation (as opposed to mandatory mediation information and assessment meetings (MIAMS)). Nor a mandatory requirement to attend a Parenting Programme before applying to family court.
As always, most apparent was the sheer amount Family Justice Council members were doing for free on top of their day jobs, in an under-resourced Family Justice ‘non-system’.
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