Judges and magistrates in the Family Court in England and Wales have to make extremely difficult decisions about what is best for children if their parents cannot agree on the arrangements for the children on or after parental separation or divorce. The family courts have seen a steady increase in such applications since 2014, with 55,645 private law children applications made in 2020 (Government Justice Data, 2021). While courts make great efforts to reach decisions that are in children’s best interests, there may be cases where the process and decisions do not best serve children and parents in this discretionary area of law. However, if there are problems with the process or decisions made, the public cannot usually know about this. Section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960 stipulates that the publication of information relating to proceedings brought under the Children Act 1989 is a contempt of court. This legislation, which is intended to protect children, means that nothing about a case can be reported without the court’s permission.
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No figures exist on how many enforced removals take place, so Dispatches sent an FOI to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and to every police force to try to find out:
- The Courts and Tribunals Service said it would be “too costly to answer the question”
- Out of the 46 police forces just two said it was possible to give us figures.
- Between them they identified 24 enforced removals over five years but indicated there could be more.
Dispatches also conducted the largest ever survey of legal professionals practicing family law, asking them about their experiences of the various levels of court
We asked 297 experienced family solicitors and barristers about this type of forced removal
- They reported they had witnessed 42 orders for this type of removal over the last 3 years.
There are at least 13,000 solicitors and barristers practising family law in England and Wales.
Another really important discussion we had focussed on what happens when a case is closed but the abuse is ongoing, and the child is not happy. One of our members had a three-month supervised contact order put in place to protect her from the abusive behaviour of her father. Afterwards her dad remained abusive, and she asked: “how does protecting children from abuse have a cut-off point? Supervised contact should only stop with changed behaviour, but his behaviour didn’t change.”
What has this story taught us?
- In cases of abuse, courts should review the effectiveness of the court order in place.
- Professionals should create a support network and a post-closure plan, so the young person can turn to someone when they feel things aren’t working out.
During the third webinar, 78% of FJYPB members felt their views were overlooked by professionals in their proceedings. Shouldn’t such a big decision influencing a child’s life be guided by the child themselves?
We also discussed how the Family Courts tend to be parent-led and can have a ‘pro-contact’ culture, leaving the child feeling ignored. One board member said “they gave him even more control over me.”
To ensure decisions are made in the best interest of the child, I think it is important to:
- Ask ‘what does the child want?’ – let the child express themself through letters, pictures or speaking to them directly without their parents.
- Remember that case files are not the child speaking; get a first-hand account of the child – they were there, the social worker wasn’t.
A range of valuable content and tools providing advice and support to families who are separating or co-parenting is now available on the Cafcass website.
The parenting together section gives parents and families access to a range of information and educational programmes to help families understand the needs of children when parents separate, and the impact of conflict on them. It can help with seeking mediation, advice on how to effectively co-parent and out of court options.
Stuart tells us about his split from his wife and subsequent experiences with Cafcass:
I’m writing this on Christmas Eve, sat at my PC with just a daft German Shepherd for company. It’s the first Christmas in eight years that I haven’t heard the buzz of excited children in the house. Don’t feel sorry for me, though – life is good and full of endless opportunity and laughter. I wanted to write this, as it’s a story of hope and proof that, sometimes, the system can be fair on dads.
Continue reading “My Positive Experience of Cafcass”
Mrs Justice Parker indicated that she was entitled to evaluate the wishes and feelings of the child. Here, those ‘wishes and feelings’ amount to the child making ‘submissions’, not adducing evidence, and so questions about these submissions were not ‘cross-examination’, but just an attempt to get the child to ‘expand and explain’.
Now, on the face of it, that seems ok, because the Guidance makes clear that it is not the purpose of the meeting to glean evidence. As counsel for the mother argued though, whatever the purpose of the meeting, evidence was going to come out. Indeed, it is hard to see how that could be avoided. So Mrs Justice Parker did procure evidence and did then rely on that evidence in coming to her decision.
Children’s Services is responsible for supporting and protecting vulnerable children.
1 This can include providing them and their families with extra help or, where they are at risk of harm, it can involve Children’s Services taking steps to make sure that they are kept safe.
The aim of the law around Children’s Services is that, wherever possible, children be raised by their family of origin, with
both parents playing a full part in raising them unless this would place the child at risk of harm and
Children’s Services providing support without using legal proceedings unless the child is at risk.
This advice sheet is written for parents or carers. It explains what Children’s Services must do when they become involved with your children and also what they can do, but don’t have to. It is divided into sections to make it easier to find the information you want:
Part 1: Key information about services for children (page 3)
Part 2: Words and Phrases used by Children’s Services (page 12)
Here are some tips on working with a social worker.
• Here are some tips also on getting ready for a child protection conference – including how to deal with factually incorrect information in reports.
• If you have support from family or friends you could ask for a family group conference to be arranged to bring them together to help support you and make a safe plan for the children.
• If you think it is necessary you can consider making a complaint – but don’t stop keeping to the plan and working with everyone involved.
Just to note, a child protection plan is not an order – if there is any mention of children’s services going to court to seek a court orderthen please do get in touch with a solicitor urgently or ring FRG’s Freephone advice line to get some advice.
Sometimes decisions are made about children that relate to incidents/ situations or allegations that happened previously – if the children are still being impacted or at risk in some way because of that situation. However, as parents you should always be given an opportunity to put forward your views, both when you have visits from the social worker or when you attend formal meetings such as a core group or a child protection conference. Parents should always be invited and supported to attend conferences (unless that would put someone at risk of harm) and the main meeting that takes place without inviting parents is the strategy meeting which plans any child protection investigation. I don’t know if that is the meeting you refer to? You can ask the new social worker to clarify this for you.
When there is a child protection plan there must always be a follow up review conference to decide if the plan should stay in place or not.