Family justice review 'a betrayal'


An official review into family justice which rejects plans to give parents equal rights to share custody of their children in the event of a split is "a betrayal of children and their families", campaigners said today.

The final report by former mandarin David Norgrove into the family justice system, which processes care and adoption orders, said "orders should be made only on areas in which parents are unable to make agreements independently".

However campaigners said that by not specifying that parents should have equal rights, any changes would simply be "merely superficial adjustments to a fundamentally broken system".

Ken Sanderson, chief executive of Families Need Fathers, said the review's failure to recommend shared parenting legislation or a statement on the importance of both parents in law represents "an abdication of their responsibilities to children and their families".

"The core failing of the current family justice system is that the rights of children to maintain meaningful relationships with both parents, as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, are not adequately supported or enforced," he said.

Nadine O'Connor, campaign director of Fathers 4 Justice, added that the review was "a monstrous sham and a bureaucratic exercise in improving the efficiency of injustice".

The review called for parents to be encouraged to develop a parenting agreement "to set out arrangements for the care of their children post-separation" to help eliminate disputes over contact and where the child should live.

Courts should only be used as a last resort to settle disputes, with divorcing parents encouraged to use mediation first and to refer to a new "divorce information hub", it said.

It also called for the Government to develop a child arrangements order, which would set out plans for the upbringing of a child when a court is required to get involved.

These orders should also be available to grandparents and wider family members with the permission of the court.

The review also called for the duration of court cases to be restricted to six months - instead of the average 13 months now.

Mr Norgrove said that making children wait well over a year for their futures to be settled was "shocking".

"This is why we are recommending legislation to ensure that child protection cases must not be allowed to take any more than six months, save in exceptional circumstances," he said.

He added: "Every year 500,000 children and adults are involved in the family justice system. They turn to it at times of great stress and conflict.

"It must deliver the best possible outcome for all the children and families who use it, because its decisions directly affect the lives and futures of all those involved, and have repercussions for society as a whole."

David Cameron has promised a "new focus" on vulnerable children after statistics revealed just 60 babies were adopted last year.

The Prime Minister said people were "flying all over the world" to adopt babies but the care system in Britain "agonises" about placing black children with white families.

Children were waiting an average of two years and seven months before being adopted, with the process taking more than three years in a quarter of cases.

The total number of adoptions has continued to drop, falling to 3,050 in 2010/11, down 5% on the previous year, according to Department for Education statistics.

Earlier this week, Mr Cameron called for an end to the "tick-box mentality" in adoption services as league tables naming poor performers were unveiled.

Officials were spending too much time asking prospective parents "pointless questions" and urged them to show more "discretion" and "judgment", he said

He also warned local authorities that "go on year after year failing" children waiting for adoption that they will lose the right to run the service.

Hackney, in London, was named the worst performer over the last three years for placing children up for adoption quickly.

Just 43% of youngsters were found new homes within 12 months, the Department for Education's league tables show. The national average was 74% from 2008-2010.

Other poor performers included Brent, with a 52% rate, Nottinghamshire with 55%, and Derby and the East Riding of Yorkshire, both with 57%.

As part of its attempt to shake up adoption services, the Government has also published an Adopters' Charter, which it claims tackles the "persistent myths" that people who smoke, are single, or are overweight cannot foster or adopt children.

The review found the backlog of cases in the public law system means around 20,000 children are "waiting for their futures to be decided".

It called for a simpler system in which there is less reliance on unnecessary expert witnesses and reports, and more focus on children and better training for professionals to make sure children's views are heard.

The focus of the courts should be on the core issue of determining whether the child should go into care, the review added.

The Government intends to bring in the six-month limit and hopes many cases should be completed much quicker than this, a spokeswoman said.

She added that the Government was committed to transforming the family justice system, saying it needed to meet "the needs of those at the heart of the system - children".

"It is vital we radically reform the family justice system to tackle delay and improve the service to children," she said.

"In particular, we know the amount of time it takes for a child to be adopted is unacceptable.

"We are already taking forward some of the review's recommendations on speeding up care cases and we intend to introduce time limits of six months as part of a package of reforms to tackle delay."

The Government also backed the review's call for a strong focus on mediation for separating couples as an alternative to court.

She added that the Government was also "firmly of the view that children should have meaningful relationships with both parents after separation".

"We will examine carefully the panel's recommendations as part of achieving that commitment," she said.

The review found that while it was in the child's best interests to have contact with both parents where it is safe, putting this into legislation "risks creating confusion, misinterpretation and false expectations".

Instead, the review said the best way to achieve shared parental responsibility was through parental education and information combined with clear, quick processes for resolution where there are disputes.

"We have concluded that the core principle of the paramountcy of the welfare of the child is sufficient and that to insert any additional statements brings with it unnecessary risk for little gain," the panel said.

"As a result, we withdraw the recommendation that a statement of 'meaningful relationship' be inserted in legislation."

Sir Nicholas Wall, the most senior family court judge in England and Wales, backed the call for all agencies to work together to reduce delay and improve their practices, saying it would help "secure the best possible experience and outcomes for the families and children".

A spokesman for the Judicial Office announced that Mr Justice Ryder will be put in charge of modernising the family justice system.

David Simmonds, chairman of the Local Government Association's children and young people board, said: "The Government has recently challenged local authorities to remove the barriers that delay decisions in the adoption and fostering process.

"It must now play its part by implementing these recommendations to stop children and families from spending an unacceptable length of time going through the court."

Deputy Children's Commissioner Sue Berelowitz said the review was clear that "children's best interests must be the primary focus and motivation at all times" in the family justice system.

"We are particularly pleased with the recommendations to work to the child's timescale, to ensure children understand what is happening, for the courts to be proactive in assisting and supporting children who wish to participate in proceedings and to create a court environment that is more child and family friendly," she said.