Today The Times published a comment piece by our Chair Lucy Reed articulating the need for an inquiry into Family Courts and their handling of domestic abuse in particular : We must shed light on family court crisis. This followed Lucy’s appearance on the BBC last week in light of MPs’ calls for such an inquiry. Only last week the Prime Minister had rejected calls for an inquiry out of hand because there was ‘no evidence’. And yet today we were surprised to wake to a Ministry of Justice press release headed :

Spotlight on child protection in family courts

A panel of experts will review how the family courts protect children and parents in cases of domestic abuse and other serious offences, Ministers announced today (Tuesday 21 May).

Did somebody sit on the MoJ from a great height to bring this about? Have government seen the light and realised that there is in fact quite a lot of evidence ripe for review? Of course we don’t know the answers to those questions, and its difficult to tell if this idea was in development when the PM answered the question in the house (in which case why didn’t she say so?) or whether it’s been knocked up over the weekend, perhaps in response to the suggestion from some Parliamentarians that the Justice Select Committee might pick up the baton if government didn’t? Or maybe this is just the proud baby of a newly installed Justice Minister Paul Maynard.

At any rate the structure of the review is markedly different from what the campaigners had in mind, namely a full, independent, public inquiry. They are :

  • Panel to make recommendations and report back in three months
  • Public ‘Call for Evidence’ to gather views on how the current system can be improved
  • Focus on ensuring the family court works in the explicit interests of the child
  • The MOJ-chaired panel will consist of a range of experts including senior members of the judiciary, leading academics and charities.

The review is going to look at application of PD12J (practice direction on domestic abuse), s91(14) Children Act 1989 (often somewhat inaccurately called barring orders, including in the press release), and will ‘gather evidence of the impact on the child and victim where child contact is sought by someone alleged to have, or who has, committed domestic abuse or other relevant offences’.

Notably absent from that list is any consideration of special measures or legal aid or court estate – areas which ministers may well have been less keen to expose to scrutiny.

We don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but our initial observations are that three months seems like a very short period of time in which to conduct a meaningful review of these issues, and it is difficult to see how the panel will, within such timescales, be able to begin verifying or assessing the many many anecdotal accounts their call for evidence will inevitably generate. There is a real risk that the panel will create more of the trial by anecdote that has created such profound worry about family courts in the first place.

We will report more when more information is available.