We have now had a reply from the Ministry of Justice to our second annual request under the Freedom of Information Act about the ‘urgent’ (2020) review of the presumption of parental involvement. Details are explained in this post. In short, we have been trying to find out what had happened following the recommendation in the Harm Report that this piece of law needed urgent review, and the Government’s commitment to undertake that. Our first FOI request was made in early 2023 after the Government’s promised completion date of the end of 2022 had expired. In response to that request, we were told the MoJ were ‘hopeful’ that the Review would be completed by the end of 2023, but nothing further was heard, so we sent in a new set of questions in January this year.
The legal presumption, introduced by amendments to section 1 of the Children Act 1989 in 2014, is that a parent’s involvement in their child’s life is in the child’s welfare, unless there is a risk of harm to the child through any form of involvement.
We have copied out the full reply to our FoI questions below, but here is a summary of what we have learnt:
- The MoJ has paid a total of £262,579 to Alma Economics; NatCen; and the Race Equality Foundation to produce three reports over three years. We found these details on the Government Contracts Finder website referred to by the MoJ in their answer to our question 5 below.
- The last of these reports appears to have been completed in October 2023, since when they have all been under consideration by the Ministry, in consultation with (unidentified) stakeholders.
- One of the reasons for the delay is that the study commissioned on court judgments had to be redesigned and a new contract issued, after the original design didn’t work.
- Another organisation called We Stand, which provides services for families who are victims of child sexual abuse, has also been contracted to do some work for the review.
- The Ministry says they are exempt from providing us with answers to most of our questions because this information will be published on gov.uk ‘at some point’ and therefore it is not in the public interest to provide us with it before then.
We make some brief comments at the foot of this post.
Reply from the MoJ:
Thank you for your request dated Monday 8 January 2024 in which you asked for the following information from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ):
1. Your reply in January 2023 stated that ‘All reports relating to the review of the presumption of parental involvement will be published together with the outcome of the review later this year (i.e. by 31 December 2023). Please let us know where these reports are published, as we are unable to find them.
2. If the outcome of the Review and associated reports have not yet been published, please provide us with copies of all of the reports that have been completed to date.
3. We noted in our questions submitted in January 2023 that the announcement of the Review in June 2020 stated that it would be undertaken under the leadership of the Family Justice Board. There is no reference to the Review in any of the published minutes of Board meetings in 2022 or 2023. Please confirm whether or not the Board is leading the Review and, if not, please state the reason for that responsibility having been removed from the Board.
4. If the Board is not responsible for leading the Review, please state who is leading the Review on behalf of the Ministry of Justice.
5. Please state which organisation/s have undertaken:
a. The literature review
b. The qualitative study on user experience
c. The analysis of court judgments
6. The commencement of the Review was announced in November 2020, more than three years ago. In January 2023, you stated that two streams of the Review (a. and b. in our question 5 above) had been completed and that only the analysis of court judgments (c. above) was ongoing and this would be completed by the end of 2023. Please let us know the date the work on this analysis of judgments began, whether it is complete, but if it is not complete, the reason for the delay.
We can confirm that the MOJ holds all of the information that you have requested and the answer to your questions has been addressed below.
We have grouped some of your questions together where they address similar topics.
For questions 1 and 2, the review into the presumption of parental involvement (“the Review”) has not yet been published. The evidence gathering for the Review is complete and Ministers are carefully considering the findings.
All of the review documents are exempt from disclosure under Section 22 of the Freedom of Information Act, because the review is intended for future publication. Section 22 is a qualified exemption which means that the decision to disclose the requested material is subject to the public interest test. When assessing whether or not it was in the public interest to disclose the information to you, we took into account the following factors:
Public interest considerations favouring disclosure
• It is in the public interest to be as transparent as possible in policy-making. The research reports supporting the Review into the Presumption of Parental Involvement touch upon very challenging issues that both members of the public and the domestic abuse sector care very deeply about.
• There is a presumption that the Government publishes social research projects at some point after their completion.
Public interest considerations favouring withholding the information
• It is in the public interest to ensure that the reports published by the Government, represent the highest possible quality of research and evidence. A significant body of research was undertaken as part of this review, which has taken time to analyse and draw conclusions from. As the nature of the evidence is complex, the MoJ is taking time to draw together the three research strands, with additional evidence, to produce the most robust conclusions possible.
• Publishing individual reports prematurely, without the government response, risks undermining the quality of and public confidence in the review. This is an important and complex issue, and we must ensure that any government policy resulting from the review is based on a solid understanding of the ways this presumption is currently applied, and how this affects both parents and children.
• We have sought input from stakeholders on the contents of the reports. This input must be thoroughly considered prior to any information being released.
On balance, we consider the public interest favours withholding the information at this time.
Please be advised that the information is due to be published in due course. Once published it can be accessed via GOV.UK.
Regarding questions 3 and 4, the Family Justice Board has oversight of the Government’s Implementation Plan of the Harm Panel Report, of which the commitment to review the Presumption of Parental Involvement is one element.
In response to question 5, the majority of this information is exempt under Section 21 of the Freedom of Information Act as it is publicly available on the Government Contracts Finder website:
• Contract awarded for the literature review.
• Contract awarded for the judgement analysis and renewal of this contract.
• Contract awarded for qualitative research.
The only piece of information that is not publicly available, and thus included here, is the involvement of We Stand (formerly known as Mosac) in the qualitative study.
In answer to question 6, the judgment analysis research initially began in March 2022. Due to challenges with the original research design, the initial contract was terminated in November 2022. A new contract was awarded in February 2023 to the same contractor to undertake the research with an amended design. This contract concluded in October 2023.
We don’t know who the ‘stakeholders’ are who are still being consulted, but they may include this Right to Equality campaign which is supported by MPs Jess Phillips and Caroline Nokes and is calling for legislative reform of the presumption.
In any event, we now know that the reports were completed four months ago, so we hope that publishing ‘at some point’ is more promising than ‘by the end of the year’, the usual answer to enquiries about this review. It is now three and half years since the acknowledged need for an urgent review, yet nothing of it has been seen.
With regard to the conclusions and recommendations of the Harm Report, we note this piece published by Families Need Fathers on 7 February. which challenges the ‘notion’ that there is a pro-contact culture in the family court. The authors describe this as mythical and a misconception, ignoring the fact that the overwhelming number of applications for contact do result in contact orders being made, even where domestic abuse is a proven or admitted feature of the case. The timing of this announcement by FNF, just as the Lords debate a number of amendments to the Victims and Prisoners Bill that cite the Harm Report is perhaps not a coincidence.
Arguably, if the Government had completed and published its review of the presumption of parental involvement more speedily, these debates would be better informed, and perhaps in some respects not necessary at all.
Image: Ministry of Justice building – Google Streetview
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