Children in care, domestic abuse and a one-stop family court: The last week in family law

Court of Appeal cases will be live-streamed on YouTube from October, it has been announced. This means that appeals in important cases such as the recent Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans cases could be watched by audiences around the world. Sir Terence Etherton, the Master of the Rolls, said: “It’s revolutionary. I am so excited about it because I think it’s exactly what we’re trying to do here . . . we all believe in open justice and the effect of transparency to enable the public to have confidence in what we’re doing.” Subject to approval by the secretary of state, and to amended regulations being approved by parliament, people will be able to watch all the submissions of counsel and the judges and their interaction, he said. Broadcasting of Court of Appeal hearings has been allowed for the last five years, but happens infrequently and the pooled footage rarely makes the television news. “The broadcasting [the selection] is also up to others,” Sir Terence said. “This is what’s such a dramatic change. Very often they don’t even use what they film, whereas this is under our control. We want to have live-streaming of the important cases.”

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has published her second Stability Index, an annual report which tracks the experiences of children in care. The Index gathers data from local authorities in England to assess how frequently children in care are ‘pinging’ around the care system – changing home, school or social worker over the course of a year. This year’s Index shows many children in care are receiving stable and consistent care but reveals, for the second year running, that thousands of children are still ‘pinging’ around the system, changing homes, schools or social worker. Almost 2,400 children changed home, school and social worker over the last twelve months and, looking at data across two years, over 3,000 children had to move home four or more times. Over three years, around 2,500 children moved home five or more times. The research suggests that older children – especially those entering care from the age of 12 to 15 – are most at risk of instability, and may need extra support to prevent placements breaking down.

The government is failing to see the full picture of the effects of domestic abuse on children, including its significant impact on children’s mental health, the children’s charity Barnardo’s has warned. In its response to the consultation on the Domestic Abuse and Violence Bill, Barnardo’s says children affected by domestic violence and abuse need specialist services to help them deal with trauma and have the chance to lead healthy and happy lives. Research by Barnardo’s, which runs 14 specialist domestic abuse services, shows that children in families where there is domestic abuse are often also vulnerable in other ways and can be affected by the experience for the rest of their lives. While services across the country focus primarily on working either with adult victims of domestic abuse or perpetrators, Barnardo’s says not enough is being done to address the trauma children have suffered and the long term impact abuse has on their lives. More needs to be done to break the cycle of domestic abuse, the charity says, as children who are not supported have a high chance of going on to be perpetrators or victims themselves.

And finally, the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby has called for the creation of “a one-stop shop in an enhanced re-vamped family court capable of dealing holistically, because it has been given the necessary tools, with all a family’s problems, whatever they may be.” In a speech at the University of Liverpool Sir James outlined four problems with the family courts as they are currently structured: the complex procedures they use; the fact that the courts do not deal with the underlying problems that lead to the cases coming before them; the fact that the family courts do not communicate and liaise with the courts of other jurisdictions, such as the criminal courts, which deal with the same families; and the fact that the family court cannot “intervene on the merits in an area of concern entrusted by Parliament to another public authority” so that, for example, the court can’t direct how resources available to a public body, such as a local authority, are used. The solution to these problems, Sir James said, was to create a ‘one-stop shop’ which could deal “holistically with the family court’s traditional concerns with status, relationship breakdown and family finances; more widely, and ultimately more importantly, dealing holistically with all the multiple difficulties and deprivations – economic, social, educational, employment, housing and health (whether physical or mental) – to which so many children and their families are victim.”