The review of family justice published last year by the former Whitehall mandarin David Norgrove made depressing reading. It described a system characterised by mutual distrust, lack of leadership and incoherence. The consequences for children caught up in it have been wretched. The average childcare case in the county courts now takes more than 15 months to complete, often far longer, while it takes on average 31 months to complete an adoption. As Norgrove pointed out, this is an age in the life of a child.
The report has formed the basis for yesterday’s proposals by the Government to re-model the system by accelerating proceedings while at the same time removing, as far as possible, the bitterness and anger such cases frequently generate. Divorced and separated fathers will have stronger rights, as will grandparents. There will also be a
six-month time limit for care and adoption cases in the courts. Central to the reforms are new regulations that will allow children caught up in marital break-ups to enjoy an ongoing relationship with both parents. The extent to which this desirable goal can be achieved will be a measure of the efficacy of these changes. Worryingly, it is on this specific point that the Government has gone against the report. Having initially supported the idea of a legal right for a child to have a continuing relationship with both parents after divorce, Norgrove changed tack. After studying a similar statutory system in Australia, he concluded that it would lead to a field day for lawyers and cause “confusion, misinterpretation and false expectations”.