Teresa Williams, Director of Strategy at Cafcass England, makes a compelling case for a public health approach to family justice in this important insight piece for the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (FJO). Her focus is on private law cases which centre on disputes over where and how children spend time with their separated parents. She argues that a public health approach is the most effective response to the escalating numbers of children caught up in the family justice system.  Two-thirds of the new cases that Cafcass deals with are private law cases. Cafcass data shows that one third of separating families are using the courts to resolve disputes rather than the one in ten that is usually cited. This data forces us to think about the wider system. Such an approach begins with the whole population; it enables prevention, early intervention alongside fast tracking those who are already at high risk. The article goes on to unpack the arguments and practicalities of implementing a public health to family justice, in particular parental conflict.

Having been heavily involved in the Early Intervention Foundation, the emphasis on family separation as a public health issue and the role of prevention and early intervention is very welcome. There are inevitably a number of challenges in translating this into practice. The first is to gear up universal services to recognise and respond appropriately to the signs of parental conflict and to see this as a part of the day job. What are the signs to look for and who should they refer to? Second is finding effective ways of working across professional groups – the article rightly identifies the need for family justice and health professionals to work together. We also need to engage those who work in schools who are in a strong position to respond to children and young people’s mental health difficulties, some of which may be a result of parental conflict.  Former approaches like ‘Think Family’ have the potential to join up services for parents and children and young people. Third, making the economic case for early intervention has proved difficult, particularly in times of austerity where funding has shifted to statutory services.  This is partly because the organisation of the funding of public services means that investment in one service doesn’t necessarily yield resource savings in that service but in another. Teresa William’s call for a joint approach between health, justice and welfare in the next Comprehensive Spending Review could be one way to resolve this. 

Despite these challenges, there is lots of innovative work being tried on the ground as described in this insight piece. Pilots led by the DWP to bring public and voluntary sector services together at a local level with a focus on interparental conflict and Cafcass’ work on Co-parenting Hubs in partnership with One Plus One to name but two.  But, if we are to embrace a public health approach to family justice, it will involve some radical re-thinking.  This article puts a spotlight on families caught up in the private law system, an area which has had less attention. It’s a reminder that the Family Justice Observatory has a critical role to play in relation to families and children caught up in difficult separation both through analysing the data to illuminate the key issues as well as working with different sectors to test better and more timely approaches to resolving family conflict.

 - Carey Oppenheim, advisor to the Nuffield Foundation and former chief executive of the Early Intervention Foundation. 

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