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Rooted in Evidence: Nuffield Family Justice Observatory Strategy 2022-26

During our first three years we have talked to children and families, professionals working in and with the court, government, academics and more. Together with the the published evidence, these conversations paint a picture of systems and services under immense pressure. The family justice system, designed to act in a child’s best interests, is not always effective in doing so.

Five goals

1 – Right support, right time

Children become involved in court proceedings when their parents
disagree about how to care for them, or when the local authority has
significant concerns about their safety or the ability of their parents
to care for them. Too often there is insufficient support to help families resolve their problems before they reach court. Where cases do progress to court there is little evidence that interaction with court process is helping to promote positive change.

We will collate and promote evidence to inform ways to reduce the need for the family court to intervene. And where it is important for matters to be resolved in court, we will identify ways that the court can provide a positive opportunity for change.

How will we know if we have succeeded?

  • There will be fewer cases coming to court as better support will
    have prevented the need for court intervention
  • There will be evidence that more children and parents find the
    court process humane, empathetic and comprehendible.
  • There will be better outcomes for children who have been subject
    to decisions in the family court.

2 – A stronger focus on problem solving

The adversarial nature of the family court is too often counterproductive. Disputes become entrenched and parents feel unfairly judged. There is good evidence that a ‘problem-solving’ approach can be more effective. This is where the authority of the court is combined with multi-agency support to ensure that every last effort is made to help a family resolve its difficulties before a court judgment is made about who a child should live with. We will share the evidence about problem-solving approaches with all parts of the family justice system and explore how a problem-solving approach might be applied to more cases.

How will we know if we have succeeded?

  • There will be more cases resolved using a problem-solving

3 – Children, parents and families as active participants

A prerequisite for justice is that all those involved can fully participate in the process. Yet children, parents and family members report that court proceedings are often difficult to navigate and that they do not feel listened to or understood. Even if individuals do not agree with the decisions made about them in the family court, feeling heard is important for future well-being. At a system level, the voices of the children and families affected by the system are not routinely heard and therefore those whose lives are most affected by the system have the least power to change it. We will seek to share and expand the evidence relating to children and parent participation in proceedings in order to inform future

How will we know if we have succeeded?

  • There will be more children and young people who feel heard and supported to actively participate in proceedings in the way they want to.
  • There will be more parents who understand what is going on in proceedings, feel their voices are heard, and experience the process as just and humane.

4 –  Inequalities are recognised and responded to

Significant disparities relating to geography, ethnicity, income, disability and other characteristics are known to exist. But because practice develops at a local level and the system is under constant strain, there is rarely the opportunity for those working in the system to identify, analyse and respond to the inequalities that present themselves. Sometimes the evidence is insufficiently detailed to be of value. For family justice to be fair, it is important to expose and act on any inequalities faced by families. We will seek to identify these inequalities and encourage ways to address them.

How will we know if we have succeeded?

  • There will be more shared awareness of the inequalities that exist.
  • More action will be taken to address inequalities in the family justice system.

5 – Greater collaboration

There is an emerging consensus that change is needed but the system
is fragmented. There are many different professionals working in
the family justice system, and in child welfare and related systems.
Professionals can feel powerless to effect change when they identify
issues that are wider than their individual practice. Changes in practice
are only possible where professionals work together around a shared
understanding of the issues and how to address them. Given their
authority, the leadership role of the judiciary is particularly important
for system change. In all our work we will foster an approach that
encourages dialogue across professional boundaries and supports
leadership in a time of great challenge and complexity.

How will we know if we have succeeded?

  • There will be regular opportunities to listen, discuss and reflect
    across the family justice system.
  • Children and relatives will have the opportunity to routinely share
    their experiences with professionals.
  • Professionals will feel informed by high quality, locally relevant data
    and research. Cross-sector dialogue to investigate issues and
    explore innovation – between judges, lawyers, family court advisers, social workers and voluntary organisations – will be the norm.
  • More judges will take a transformational leadership role –
    inquiring, convening, challenging and championing change – to
    ensure the best interests of children.