Too many Whitehall departments are responsible for matters affecting families and children, the president of the family division has said in a speech which also called for a new policy on criminal prosecutions of children.
Sir James Munby told a Howard League for Penal Reform event on Monday: 'It is an intriguing commentary on how Whitehall is organised that there is no department and no secretary of state whose title includes either the word "families" or the word "children", though there is a junior minister, the minister of state for children and families, in the department of education.
'In some areas, policy and justice are located in different departments. Thus, at the risk of some over-simplification, criminal policy rests with the home office, just as family policy rests with the department of education, while both criminal justice and family justice fall within the remit of the Ministry of Justice.'
With children caught up in various complex justice systems, Munby called for the family court to be 'revamped' with an enhanced jurisdiction. He said: 'Why, for example, could the youth court not be amalgamated in an expanded family court where the process would no longer be criminal and the emphasis could be on problem-solving in the true sense and... for the entire family, rather than on punishment, or so-called rehabilitation, for the child in the custodial estate so excoriated by the chief inspector?'
Acknowledging that decades could pass for the idea to gain traction, he suggested interim measures such as cross-deploying family judges to sit in the youth court, immigration and asylum chamber, and health, education and social care chamber. In cases where there are parallel proceedings in different courts involving the same child, cases could be listed simultaneously before suitably 'cross-ticketed' judges.
Munby said: 'There is nothing particularly novel or difficult in this. I have myself on a number of occasions sat simultaneously in the family division and the administrative court to hear a pair of cases relating to the same family.'
He urged the Crown Prosecution Service to reconsider existing prosecuting policy for children. 'I do not, of course, go so far as to suggest that age alone should immunise children from the appropriate application of the criminal law where there has been really serious offending. However, in less serious cases it is legitimate to ask what advantage there is, either to the child, or to the child’s family, or, indeed, to society at large, in invoking a criminal process in preference to a family court process, especially where the family court is already engaged in careful analysis of and planning for the child’s future.'
A CPS spokesperson said today: 'A decision to prosecute a youth is only made if there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest to do so. The code for crown prosecutors directs prosecutors to consider the welfare of the child when looking at whether or not to charge including if diversion would be beneficial.'
The number of youth prosecutions has fallen by more than 80% in the last decade. The spokesperson added: 'In some less serious cases, where the offence has been admitted, the matter can be dealt with through out-of-court-disposals rather than a prosecution. These can be beneficial to offenders and reduce the risk of future offending.'