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Halloween 2016

Major overhaul of family courts could achieve better outcomes for children

In his first media interview since the publication of a 250-page draft Family Justice Report, Lord Justice Gillen reveals to Lindsay Fergus from Detail Data that a cultural change is needed so more families reach agreement outside of court...

COURTS should become the last resort for separated families, according to reforms proposed in the biggest shake-up of the family justice system in almost 20 years.

Lord Justice John Gillen – who is heading the Review of Family and Civil Justice – said: “There is no doubt that solving problems outside court is a key component of this report.”
However, it will be up to politicians at Stormont to implement the judge’s recommendations, which he believes could radically improve outcomes for families and children.

As part of the review Justice Gillen liaised with experts from around the world including New Zealand where separating couples are not allowed to go to court until they have engaged in a parenting discussion. “At that discussion children are absolutely kept to the fore,” the senior judge explained.
“That is a cultural change and it’s challenging but it has to be done because unless we have this inclusive approach, whereby parents and those who are separating realise that the court system is but one method of resolving your difficulties, we are going to go on the way we have been going.”

His review highlighted problems with major delay and inefficiency in court proceedings, budget cuts, too many court hearings, and no formal training structure for family court judges.

Previous research by Detail Data found that Northern Ireland’s family courts made more than 24,000 decisions impacting on thousands of children’s lives between September 2012 and August 2015 alone. An analysis of that data from the Family Proceedings Court, Family Care Centre and the High Court by Detail Data also revealed that 10,206 contact and residence orders were made during that timeframe – almost half of all orders.

Orders for ‘contact’ and ‘residence’ generally set out which parent a child lives with and when they have contact with their other parent.
A previous story by The Detail also revealed how private law children’s orders in 2013/14 cost the public purse £11.7million but in comparison Family Mediation NI received just over £200,000 in government funding that same year for pre-court mediation.

There are 168 recommendations in the draft report. Key recommendations include having ‘problem solving courts’, a new family court structure, fast-tracking of cases and greater use of technology which would enable police officers and social workers to give court updates via the internet. Also problem solving courts – with the assistance of specialised support services including anger management, drug and alcohol addiction – will aim to help parents.

Justice Gillen added: “We hope to cut down the number of court appearances, to reduce the number of children taken into care because with help hopefully the parents can learn to look after the children in a way that perhaps they haven’t done in the past.”

New sanctions are also being proposed for parents who fail to adhere to a court order including community service and mandatory parenting classes similar to those for people caught speeding.

Justice Gillen noted the community and voluntary sector has already played and will continue to play a key role in the reforms. Many groups including Family Mediation NI and the NSPCC formed a reference group advising Justice Gillen.

Joan Davis, director of Family Mediation NI said: “Justice Gillen’s far reaching review has concluded that the Separated Parents Information Programme in New Zealand may influence the development of a similar approach in Northern Ireland. We are encouraged by this vision that acknowledges family breakdown as not a legal battle but a societal issue that requires urgent intervention to reduce the negative impact on children.

“We have been waiting for some years for mediation to be funded and supported as in Britain and the Republic and believe that Justice Gillen’s vision will begin the process of departments working together to develop mediation services to reduce the numbers of parents entering the adversarial legal system to decide on contact and residency. Supporting the empowerment of parents to be the decision makers around the future of their own children achieves the best long term outcomes.”

After the final report is handed to the Lord Chief Justice this autumn it will be up to the government to implement the recommendations. A public consultation process closes on October 28 and responses can be emailed to civilfamilyjusticereview@courtsni.gov.uk

This is an edited version of an original article first published by The Detail, October 6, 2016. The Detail is an award-winning not-for-profit investigative news and analysis website dedicated to in-depth reporting on issues of vital public interest. Visit thedetail.tv

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