Overhaul demanded for 'shocking' family courts

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The Independent Online

Children at the centre of divorce battles can wait more than a year for their future to be decided under the current legal system, a report revealed today.

Calling for an overhaul of "shocking" family courts, it said disputes take "far too long" to resolve and that the delays were likely to increase in future.

The government-commissioned Family Justice Review has proposed a shake-up of the system, designed to ensure youngsters suffer as little as possible during bitter legal wranglings.

Proposals include establishing a new Family Justice Service to oversee the agencies involved in proceedings while creating a unified family court system.

It said couples should be urged to seek mediation rather than face a courtroom battle. Where this is unavoidable, they could be obliged to sign parenting agreements to ensure their children continue to have contact with grandparents and siblings.

The recommendations are intended to cut the strain on the system as an increasing number of parents become involved in legal tussles.

David Norgrove, a former civil servant who chairs the Family Justice Review panel, said the proposals focused on the welfare of youngsters who are so often the victims of a chaotic system formed of disparate organisations.

He insisted: "Children are the most important people in the family justice system.

"Family justice is under huge strain. Cases take far too long and delays are likely to rise. Children can wait well over a year for their futures to be settled. This is shocking.

"Our recommendations aim to tackle these issues, to bring greater coherence through organisational change and better management, making the system more able to cope with current and future pressures and to divert more issues away from court where appropriate."

The interim report said too many private legal disputes end up in court. It highlighted "distrust" in the system and "a vicious circle of layers of checking and scrutiny that lead to work being done less well".

In his foreword, Mr Norgrove said: "The lack of IT and management information is astonishing, with the result - among other things - that little is known about performance and what things cost.

"The system, in short, is not a system."

The College of Social Work hit out at the recommendations and said the report had not given enough thought to the implications of some of its suggestions.

One of these included bringing court social work services under the proposed Family Justice Service, subsuming the role currently performed by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass).

Interim co-chair Corinne May-Chahal said: "We welcome the Family Justice Review's tribute to the dedication of those who work in family justice and entirely agree that children in the public care and children from families in conflict should expect the best integrated service with the fewest delays.

"But court social workers do skilled and specialist work and it is absolutely vital that any new employer provides ample support for social workers to perform to the high standards we would expect."