A national board set up to improve the performance of the family justice system and chaired by government ministers had not met for 17 months until recently, the president-designate of the family division has revealed.
For this crucial co-ordinating body not to be functioning at a time of crisis ‘is a disaster’, Lord Justice Andrew McFarlane declared.
McFarlane, who takes over from Sir James Munby as family division chief next month, was speaking at an event to unveil the findings of a cross-sector review, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, into the crisis in children’s social care.
The Court of Appeal judge said Munby was ‘plainly right to blow the whistle when he did’ two years ago over the significant rise in the number of care applications being received by the courts. This ‘is by no means abating’, he added.
Judges are dealing with a higher number of private law applications as well as an increased public law workload, McFarlane said. Pre-proceedings work under public law orders are ‘seen to be the entrance lobby to the courtroom, where the local authority are doing no more than ticking a box or using the process to gather evidence, rather than making a genuine effort to deliver a wake-up call to parents and divert them from the court process’, he added.
McFarlane said family justice boards are essential to the system operating well. The Family Justice Board is chaired by the Ministry of Justice and Department for Education. It has three sub-groups: the Family Justice Council, the Family Justice Young People’s Board and a performance improvement sub-group. McFarlane said the performance sub-group is the only arm that is active.
He added: ‘At a time of crisis, for the single element in the system that brings the key players together locally and nationally not to be functioning is a disaster and can properly be seen to be part of the problem. For this decline to be reversed immediately is, to my mind, a no-brainer.