New Clause 3 - Pilot scheme on early intervention

Part of Children and Adoption Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 21 March 2006.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 12:00, 21 March 2006

New clause 3, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends, is quite important. It is concerned with the thorny issue of the early interventions pilot, about which there still remains a mystery. Perhaps we shall get to the bottom of it in the Minister’s response.

To recap, a group of eminent practitioners put together the early interventions pilot a few years ago. It was submitted, fully designed, to the Government on 8 October 2003 and addressed the problem of how to avoid disputing couples going to long, drawn-out   and acrimonious legal cases. The pilot was founded on the presumption of reasonable contact and was designed largely by English lawyers and judges. It was based on the 1997 guidelines of the Association of Family Court Welfare Officers, which sought to promote a presumption of meaningful and reasonable contact—reasonable being a word that we have sought to insert in the Bill in numerous places. The guidelines were developed following a 1995 complaint against a report of the family court welfare service, the body that preceded the children and family court advisory and support service. In that case, it was shown that officers of the family court welfare service had not acted under strict guidelines, so their professional body drew up extensive guidelines based on the presumption of meaningful and reasonable contact. Building on those guidelines, a lot of work was carried out by a group of practitioners on what became the early interventions project.

To illustrate the calibre of that group, let me list the members who prepared one of its proposition papers. The chairman was district judge Nicholas Crichton, who is well known to many hon. Members for the innovative family court that he runs in Wells street in London’s west end. I have witnessed it at first hand; it is a model of how the system could be speeded up. The pre-planning group that he chaired included Dr. Hamish Cameron, a consultant child psychiatrist; Audrey Damazer, clerk to the justices of the inner London family proceedings court; Diane Elliott from the Institute of Family Therapy; Joan Hunt from the Oxford family policy unit; Brian Kirby from CAFCASS; Ruth Smallacombe, a mediator of Family Law in Partnership; the then chief executive of CAFCASS and Veronica Carter, formerly chief clerk in the Official Solicitor’s Department; so the early interventions project for the resolution of private law family disputes enjoyed fairly heavyweight input.

That proposal went forward. It contained some eminently sensible, practical and workable suggestions and was based on a heavyweight conference held in March 2002 at the Royal Society, involving involved many judges. That was entitled “Early Intervention—Towards a Pilot Project”, and was chaired by Mrs. Justice Bracewell, who gave a keynote address that supported what became the early interventions project.

In October 2003, the proposals went to the Department for Constitutional Affairs. However, somewhere between the DCA and the Department for Education and Skills, in which the Minister for Children and Families is based—she has as part of her remit this whole area, including the control of CAFCASS—the early interventions project disappeared. Its existence was later denied. It was said that the pilot had never existed, or that it was the family resolutions pilot project by a different name.

The trouble is that it was not the same thing in practice. In September 2004, the Government put into effect the family resolutions pilot project, which was to last a year. They anticipated that there would be several thousand takers for this new attempt at keeping acrimonious cases out of the courts. The pilot   ran in three centres—Brighton, London and, I think, Sunderland—but there were not thousands of cases. By the time it ended in September 2005, there had been only 62 referrals from the three areas over the year. Barely half those cases completed the programme. Nearly a third of referrals dropped out before the first session, and a small number dropped out later. Nearly three quarters of non-completed cases were due to parents not attending the sessions. Most cases took longer to complete the programme than the target 12 weeks.

We were promised an appraisal of the family resolutions pilot project. Coincidentally, on the morning of the Bill’s Second Reading, unbeknown to Conservative members of the Committee, the findings of that project were produced. Fortunately, that came to light on Second Reading, during which we had to request the Minister to furnish the Front-Bench Members involved in that debate with the findings. Late in the day, we eventually got those findings, which I now have in my hand. I will not go back over the arguments as to why we got them so late in the day. Certainly, they make interesting reading.

To say that the project has been damned with faint praise is perhaps an underestimate. The best comments that we could get on it were:

“The overall effectiveness of the pilot was variable. On some issues it was hard to make a judgement.”

One conclusion was:

“The pilot has not produced a clear blue print for the future development of services, but it has provided a number of important pointers for future developments within the family justice system and beyond.”

In short, the project was a complete, total and unmitigated disaster. As an article in The Guardian on 30 May said:

“In short, it’s a waste of time.”

It need not have been a waste of time if the Government had stuck to the original intention of seeing through the early interventions pilot project, into which a lot of work had gone.

We want to be helpful to the Government. Their family resolutions project has failed, and we need to get it back on track. I suggest that we do that by seeing through the original project, and that is what new clause 3 is based on. It will designate courts to participate in the scheme. Those courts will issue a set of guidelines to parents involved, suggesting appropriate levels of contact in various cases, in the absence, of course, of good reason to the contrary; there must always be that safeguard. The court will clearly set the date of the first hearing and will give an instruction that the couples should attend a meeting with a court-appointed mediator to develop a parenting plan. In another new clause, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke has set out ideas for parenting plans.

The instructions will also explain that those parents who do not go along with the parenting plan will have to attend a parent education meeting and

“attend contact-focused dispute resolution and mediation.”

That is set out in subsection (3)(d)(ii) of the new clause. It also makes it clear that

“litigation should be a last resort.”

Subsection (5) is crucial to the scheme, saying:

“The court shall take into account the willingness of each parent to participate in the scheme.”

That pilot project requires a degree of compulsion. We think it essential that the warring couple be pointed in the right direction and be required to go through a number of preliminary stages, so that they exhaust every opportunity to come up with a solution to, and resolution of, their differences in the interests of the children. That can then form the basis of an agreement, which means that long drawn out acrimonious legal cases are avoided.

As we have discussed, mediation cannot by its essence be based on compulsion, but we believe that it should be compulsory for a couple, and certainly for the initial stages. If they still opt out, and if one opts out in particular—this is the rub—the court should take account of that when making a subsequent judgment if the legal processes are continued with because no other course of action is available. In effect, brownie points should be available to those parents who comply with the suggested process.

In everything that the Government have designed for their voluntary and rather limp mediation process, my fear is that if one parent shows good will and wants to go along with mediation but the second parent sets his or her face against it from the start and wants nothing to do with it, the process will fall and court proceedings be carried forth. However, surely the person who wanted to go the extra mile with mediation should receive some recognition of their willingness to do so. Under subsection (5) of the new clause such a scheme would account for people’s willingness to go along with what is seen as a better way of avoiding court conflict.

We are suggesting doing what the Government should have done in the first place, which is to establish a pilot. We want not to set down in law what must happen, but to set the framework for a pilot. At the end of that, which would presumably last for a year or so and could be based on a sample pattern similar to that of the family resolutions pilot project, but hopefully with more people taking it up at the outset, we can make a proper assessment of what will work. There is a lack of research in this country and in others on why contact orders fail and what we can do to improve the system, to ensure that when they are granted, or, preferably, when pre-court agreements are made, they are fair to all sides, and all sides will go along with them.

New clause 3 seeks to restore what the Government were apparently looking to put in place and what I think they wanted to put in place, but which went astray somewhere between the DCA and the Department for Education and Skills and was replaced by a thin, pale imitation. However, what was originally proposed would have stood a much better chance of succeeding, and on that basis I am pleased to propose that new clause 3 be added to the Bill.