Care proceedings, adoptions and courts: The last week in family law

The President of the Family Division Sir James Munby has advised local authorities “to think long and hard before embarking upon care proceedings against otherwise unimpeachable parents who may justifiably resent recourse to what they are likely to see as an unnecessarily adversarial and punitive remedy.” The comment was made in a case relating to a four-year-old boy, who is profoundly neurologically disabled with a life-limiting condition. In February 2017 the local authority issued care proceedings in relation to the boy, alleging that his parents had been “uncooperative, rude and aggressive and intimidating of medical and nursing staff”, and that due to the lack of co-operation from the parents, and repeated allegations about the carers, it had been impossible to implement a care package of support for the boy, as a result of which he would suffer significant harm. A care order was made in April 2017, but the local authority subsequently applied to the court for it to be discharged, in the light of evidence that the care package was, in fact, working satisfactorily. The President granted the application.

The British Association of Social Workers (‘BASW’) has published a report into a two-year Enquiry into the role of the social worker in adoption. Key findings included that it was considered that in England, in recent decades, policy makers had tended to promote adoption as risk free in a ‘happy ever after’ narrative – the Enquiry heard from a range of respondents across the UK that this is unhelpful; and that austerity was adding to the “considerable adversities” faced by many families in poverty who are seeking to safely care for their children – welfare and legal aid cuts had reduced the financial resources available to some, while services designed to help more families stay together and prevent children being taken into care had also been stripped back. BASW CEO Ruth Allen said: “Adoption can be highly successful, providing children with stable, loving homes and adoptive parents with the experience of creating the family they want.  Birth families may consent to adoption and recognise the value to their biological child. However, the Enquiry explores the complex realities of adoption for many people, particularly in non-consensual adoption, with mixed outcomes and experiences for all involved which raise questions about what the report calls a dominant ‘happy ever after’ narrative.”

The Ministry of Justice (‘MoJ’) has launched a consultation “on proposals to shape future decisions on the court and tribunal estate”. The MoJ says that HM Courts & Tribunals Service is working alongside the judiciary to modernise the justice system to make access to justice quicker, easier and fairer for all – and enable some work to be held away from a physical court building, for example the filing of divorce petitions. Ministers are seeking views on how the estate can change to support this transformation. Justice Minister Lucy Frazer said: “This government is investing over £1 billion to reform and modernise the justice system – making it more convenient, easier to use, and providing better value for the taxpayer. As we increase the use of digital services, it makes sense to consider the wider role and need for Court buildings and assess whether some are still necessary to provide effective access to justice. Where physical courts are to close, every penny raised will be put back into funding changes which will make justice easier to access for all at the same time as offering protections for the most vulnerable.”

And finally, the charity the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for gender equality and women’s rights, has published a review into sex discrimination law. The review concludes that our legal system is failing women and needs fundamental reform. It also found that the police are more likely to close domestic abuse cases due to evidential difficulties compared with other violent offences. In addition, the Review Panel received evidence that a worrying number of domestic violence incidents are resolved using “street level” restorative justice, which can often be little more than an apology. It said that guidance must be strengthened to make clear that “street level” restorative justice should not be used in cases of domestic abuse or sexual violence, and data should be collected to ensure that forces are held accountable.