For anyone who missed Tuesday’s third episode in the BBC Victoria Derbyshire show’s investigation into how the family courts treat victims of domestic abuse, it’s available at catch up here (5:39 to 23:18).
The more nuanced, collaborative, and solutions focused tones of the second episode (also featuring Transparency Project Chair and family barrister Lucy Reed) are sustained in this third episode which makes it pretty watchable, without any loss of focus on survivors of abuse or the importance of the issues.
It’s essentially a reaction to the government announcement of a review of the family courts after all, despite Friday’s denial of any need for one in Prime Ministers questions. The programme welcomes the government’s late admission that a review is in fact required – but exposes the concerns of many about the manner in which the government is proposing to conduct that review.
There’s a romp through some of the key moments from the first two episodes (including former children’s Minister, Edward Timpsons view that the system as it is isn’t working) and a summary of key events, including the call for a detailed, independent analysis by reputable academics from the former President of the family courts, and the government ‘U Turn’, to bring readers up to speed.
Derbyshire then interviews one of the show’s reporters on some of the detail of what the government is proposing (an immediate call for ‘evidence’ [ie. views], followed by a [short] three month review, chaired by the Ministry of Justice and involving [as yet unannounced] leading academics, charities, and senior members of the judiciary. Focused on ensuring the family courts are working in children’s interests, including their safety and wellbeing, the need to ensure the courts are not used to re-traumatise or continue abuse, and how PD12J and orders barring future applications are working).
Then panel guests – Louise Haigh (Labour MP and Shadow Policing Minister who has campaigned for the review), Sir Paul Coleridge (former High Court Judge, now Chair of the Marriage Foundation), and Lucy Hadley (Women’s Aid) discuss the limitations of that – concluding pretty much as one, that though considerably better than no review, it’s not really what families or the family justice system need right now.
Above all (as Louise Haigh explained) because we are wasting everyone’s time if we don’t review properly with independence, expertise, and sufficient time and remit to do more than scratch the surface, underpinned by an adequate data collection, research and analysis exercise, in order to truly understand the extent of any problems and the nature of any solutions.
The fear in her view, is that this review announcement is simply paying lip-service to the problem. And reflects a government unwilling to put the work in to find genuine whole systems change solutions to a genuinely complex problem. Let alone the political will to then find serious funds to enable those solutions by (for example) steps from reducing the case loads of social workers and cafcass officers to re-instating legal aid:
The Transparency Project also offered a view on some of the difficulties and complexity on Tuesday. See An Inquiry into the Secret Family Courts:
Neither Lucy Hadley of Women’s Aid nor former High Court Judge Sir Paul Coleridge disagreed with Haigh, (who is now firmly behind the long held Transparency Project view, that we’ve got plenty of valuable anecdotal evidence already but this is no basis alone for attempting to decide whether and how to reform the family courts).
Coleridge offered some further insights as a former High Court judge on the scale and complexity of the task and the sort of whole system solutions required to fix it (wholly inconsistent with a short 3 month review). He spoke of the dangers of a swing back and forth from pressure groups feeding into legislation / guidance and the ‘noise’ a few years ago from the Fathers’ groups about family courts failing to preserve relationships between fathers and children, that was followed by legislative amendments requiring judges to presume that relationships between both parents are beneficial to children wherever possible [this is the s. 1(2)(A) Children Act 1989 presumption of parental involvement, framed as a ‘culture of contact at all costs’ by some, such as Women’s Aid]; the exponential rise in workloads in the family courts despite strict time frames for judges on processing them; the drive-down the system of such cases which are now mostly conducted by magistrates who are not legally qualified; and Parliament’s decision to remove legal aid from such cases in 2013, leaving parents unsupported in the height of their vulnerability.
We anticipate that those behind the show, politicians, lobbyists and the concerned voices of those who have experienced abuse or who represent them, will now do their utmost to keep pressure on the government and a spotlight on this issue. It’s unclear for now whether we’ll get a Victoria Derbyshire Show episode four in future on this or what the public response to the review will ultimately be.