Family justice review criticises 'shocking delays'

Brothers Children wait on average 13 months for a decision on their case

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Childcare decisions in family courts should be made within six months, an official review has said.

Former senior civil servant David Norgrove said family justice was slow and incoherent and children suffered "shocking delays" over decisions.

But he ruled out giving both parents equal access to a child, a key demand of fathers' rights campaigners.

A government spokesman said it was vital to "radically reform" the family justice system.

Mr Norgrove said parents should be encouraged to make their own care arrangements when they separate.

He also stuck to an earlier recommendation that grandparents should have to go to court to demand access to their grandchildren when it is denied.

On giving equal rights of access to both parents he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Fundamentally, this is not about the rights of parents, it's about the welfare of children and we should be focused entirely on that.

'Not against fathers'

"The evidence from other countries, particularly Australia, is that if you put that kind of requirement into legislation, it leads to damage to children because you put them right in the middle of those last few per cent of parents who are separating who get into really violent dispute," he added.

The Deputy Children's Commissioner for England, Sue Berelowitz, said the fact that equal access rights had not been approved did not mean the review was acting against fathers.

Analysis: The long wait for justice

Last month I sat in on a typical case in the Family Courts in central London. Several young children had been removed from their mother's care and placed with foster parents. Two had serious injuries, dating back to the summer of 2010. But in October 2011, 15 months on, the children were still with their foster parents.

She said: "I have not seen anything in the report that says there must be a presumption on the rights of mothers. What the report is very clear about, which I wholly and utterly endorse, as does the commissioner, is that the presumption must be that the best interests of the child must be put first."

The question of whether both parents should have equal rights to access to a child after a separation was addressed in both Mr Norgrove's interim and final reports.

Mr Norgrove did not recommend a legal right in either of his reports, but the interim document had suggested ministers could use legislation to underline "the importance of the child continuing to have a meaningful relationship with both parents, alongside the need to protect the child from harm".

The final report dismisses that idea, saying it could do more harm than good.

'Broken system'

But Ken Sanderson, of campaign group Families Need Fathers, said: "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.

"By choosing not to address this issue, any other proposals… will be merely superficial adjustments to a fundamentally broken system."

Mr Norgrove said: "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."

His report said family justice was under huge strain with care cases on average taking more than a year to resolve. Approximately 20,000 children are currently waiting for an outcome.

Ms Berelowitz said the average wait of 61 weeks for a decision on custody was "not acceptable".

Case Study

Robert (not his real name) is a grandfather from the West Midlands

I have just watched my son struggle to get more access to his child. It was unbelievably distressing for both me and my wife.

My son and his ex-wife are both good people and parents but had simply fallen out.

Neither wanted to criticise each other and there were no issues for them to resolve. They just couldn't agree on the access arrangements.

At a preliminary hearing, the court said how nice it was to see a father wanting more access to his child.

At the final hearing, however, the magistrate assumed that he had not done everything to reach an agreement with his wife, but was just resorting to the courts. He felt reprimanded.

He doesn't want to be the main carer, just to be involved in his child's life, but there was a sense that he should feel grateful for the right to access.

The report also acknowldeges the role that grandparents can play after parents separate.

They are often "extremely important to children, and continue to be important if parents separate" the report says.

But despite that Mr Norgrove sticks to the recommendation in his interim report that they must apply to the courts where access to their grandchildren is being refused.

"We recognise the importance to children of relationships with their grandparents and recommend that this be emphasised in the process to come to an agreement about their future care.

"However we continue to feel that the requirement for grandparents to seek leave of the court before making an application is not overly burdensome and should remain."

The report includes many other proposals from the interim document, including creating a single family justice system and making courts focus on where a child goes, rather than spending time looking at the detailed care arrangements.

The review said parents should use mediation and other routes to make arrangements for caring for their children and only turn to the courts as a last resort.

In its first official response to the report, the government said it would introduce a six-month deadline for decisions on the care of children.

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

"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.

"As set out in the Coalition Programme for Government, this government is committed to encouraging shared parenting and is 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."

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