Community Law & Mediation (CLM) has welcomed the commitment to place children at the centre of reform in the Family Justice Strategy published this week by the Department of Justice, but cautions that this cannot be achieved without consistent application.
CLM, which provides a dedicated children’s legal-advice and advocacy service, was a member of the expert advisory group on the matter.
CLM children’s law specialist, solicitor Ruth Barry, said: “Family-law proceedings are often highly adversarial, and can be re-traumatising for both children and other family members.
“We welcome the new strategy, in particular the commitment to place children at the centre of reform. While the strategy does not yet fully address problematic areas, such as civil legal aid, expert reports furnished to court, or hearing the voice of the child, it provides a framework for moving forward.”
Barry added that the express recognition of children’s best interests in the Family Court Bill was particularly welcome, as was the intention to create a dedicated Family Court within the existing court structure.
She expressed some concerns about how this would be delivered in practice, however.
“Jurisdiction in private family law is determined based on the financial assets of the family, and the bill contains no provision for complex high-conflict private family law cases – where care of a child or children is the source of the complexity – to be directed to the Circuit Court,” Ruth Barry said.
This will be at odds with complex childcare proceedings concerning child protection.
Furthermore, the bill does not provide for the separation of public and private family-law proceedings in the court lists of the new family-law courts, CLM points out.
This has the effect that families and children who are in court to address child-protection issues may have their cases listed alongside families and children who are in court to address custody and access.
CLM urges a review of the Family Court Bill from the perspective of the child’s experience.
This would be “a review based on the child being at the centre of all reform in the area – in order that we ensure we set solid foundations for this reform process and start as we mean to continue,” said Ruth Barry.