On 23 January 2015, Family Law Group staff attended the Northamptonshire Family Justice Board Conference entitled ‘Changing Family Law for Northamptonshire’. Kerrie-Ann Downing, Trainee Solicitor in Milton Keynes reports on the conference content and findings.
The Conference was chaired by His Honour Judge Hughes, Designated Family Judge for Northamptonshire, Milton Keynes and Oxfordshire.
The highlight of the day was a keynote address by the President of the Family Division, which gave us all a real insight as to the future for Family Law. This was followed by talks from Caroline Tote, a manager from the Northamptonshire Local Authority, and Jane Andrews, who runs a not for profit local Children and Families centre, Ward Andrews.
The President of the Family Division
Lord Justice Munby addressed several areas in his hour long address, focusing on the recent reforms and changes he hopes to achieve in the future. The President outlined that the majority of the major reforms had now taken place, and what would follow would be smaller reforms to make the family justice system more efficient and fit for purpose.
The President stated that one of these changes will be focusing on dealing with vulnerable witnesses, with a particular regard to children attending court.
The President was clear that this should not be something that we should rush into, but that consideration does need to be given as to whether children should become more involved in the court process. This could range from simply meeting the Judge to expressing their wishes and feelings and giving evidence in court. The President was also clear that there needs to be a focus on addressing the wider issue of vulnerable people giving evidence in family proceedings. Concerns raised with regard to this issue included inadequate procedures for taking evidence from alleged victims. The President stated that the “Special Measures” currently in place could do with some serious improvement and his department would be looking into potential changes. Additionally, intermediaries needed to play a bigger role in ensuring that adults with learning difficulties can properly participate in proceedings.
Another area of potential development identified was training for Family Court advocates, similar to that in the Criminal jurisdiction. The President considers that this should focus on enhancing advocacy skills in the cross examination of vulnerable witnesses, but commented that he had witnessed a great existing skillset from local advocates during his time sitting at the Northampton Family Court in January. The message from the President was that firms should look at this now, before it becomes compulsory and as Family Law Group always strives to be at the forefront of embracing and adapting to change, Nicholas Flatt (a Director of the Firm) has recently been appointed Head of Advocacy with a view to developing the skills of the firm’s advocates over the coming weeks and months.
The President was clear in his view that private children matters should no longer drag on for several months and in some cases, years. Lawyers, professionals and the Courts need to work together in ensuring cases are concluded after two hearings, wherever possible. The President indicated that to assist families, the Court should look to implementing ‘Monitoring Orders’ at the conclusion of private law proceedings, enabling CAFCASS to continue assisting and working with families after proceedings have come to an end. It remains unclear, however, whether CAFCASS (with their already busy workloads) will be able to undertake this work.
The court has a duty to restrict expert evidence to that which, in the opinion of the court, is necessary to assist the court to resolve the proceedings. The President informed us that working on the basis of this principle the Family Courts witnessed an initial decrease in the number of experts being appointed. However, more recently, there has been a significant increase in the use of experts. The President wished to remind everyone that the appointment of experts must only be in circumstances where it is ‘necessary’, and that the Court needs to monitor this closely to ensure this is the case. He was also clear that bundles should consist of no more than 350 pages for Final Hearings.
The President was pleased with the implementation of the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) in Milton Keynes, and wants Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire to adopt this. The President expressed that FDAC is a crucial part of the family justice system, which works and must be implemented widely. The FDAC saves money in the long term and works with families to solve deep rooted problems. More often than not, this results in subsequent children not being removed from their parent(s) for the same reasons as their siblings. The President confirmed that the Government felt that FDAC was incredibly important, and will be funding the next generation of FDAC. Family Law Group are well placed to assist families involved in such proceedings, given that their lawyers in the Milton Keynes office have been involved in over 50% of the FDAC cases in its first year.
Finally, the President closed by saying that lawyers should embrace these big changes to the culture of Family Law, and that these are the last big institutional reforms. His ambition was that at the end of his presidency in 3 years’ time, everyone will look back and wonder how we managed under the old system!
New initiatives from Northamptonshire Local Authority
The strategic Manager CIN North, Caroline Tote, spoke about the changes and improvements the Local Authority has made since being placed under special measures.
Northamptonshire Local Authority has worked hard to implement several changes, such as: building better relationships with legal services, implementing structures and adopting a more stringent approach to the planning process. These changes have also included a focus on keeping families together, if at all possible, and implementing Care Plans much earlier.
Jane Andrews, Family Consultant at Ward Andrews spoke on the importance of ensuring families are assessed properly by the right person with the right expertise.
Jane outlined the importance of asking yourself three key questions when instructing an expert: 1. What type of expert do you want? 2. What do you need to know? 3. Why is this important and who has the necessary skills?
When receiving reports, they should be no longer than 30 pages and should contain an analysis of findings. If you want recommendations, remember to ask for them!
FLG was proud to be present to hear directly from the President, and it was apparent that in view of the considerable recent changes to Family Law generally, the need for skilled legal representation is as important now as it has ever been.