THE BLOG

Children, Courts and an Unwanted Record

14/06/2013 09:23 BST | Updated 10/08/2013 10:12 BST

The break up of every domestic relationship has consequences of one sort or another.

Many adults find it possible to get over the distress and get on with the rest of their lives. The involvement of children, however, increases the potential for complications, as both parents try to do what they believe is right for the well-being of their sons or daughters.

In my experience and that of many other lawyers, including my colleagues in the Family department at Pannone, it is the differing views of mothers and fathers as to what is in a child's best interests that often leads to friction between parents on separation and which also impacts negatively on their offspring.

That context means that the latest figures from a body charged with helping parents sort out disagreements about children which come before the courts cause unease.

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service - or CAFCASS, for short - has just revealed that last month was the busiest month since it the organisation came into being in April 2001.

Furthermore, the combined total for April and May was up 27 per cent on the same period only 12 months before. CAFCASS has been quick to point out that its workload in early 2012 had been affected by Government attempts to encourage the use of mediation in an effort to steer less complex cases away from courtrooms up and down the country.

It is worth noting, though, that the latest numbers relate to a development which had not been as warmly anticipated. As part of the Government's initiatives to trim the annual £2 billion Legal Aid bill, it declared that from April this year most Family cases, including children's proceedings, would no longer be funded by the public purse.

The move was seen in some quarters as a retrograde step. In addition to causing delays as individuals ineligible to receive free legal support and unable to pay solicitors' costs represented themselves, there had been forecasts that removing Legal Aid would jeopardise the welfare of children.

What CAFCASS has now disclosed is being interpreted as the first possible indications of how the Legal Aid cuts have impacted on the court system.

Individuals with legal representation might previously have attempted to negotiate a resolution to their particular difficulties without going to court. Now, there are suggestions that courts may well be seen as the first and only option open to families experiencing difficulties at home.

All that means even greater demand for the services of CAFCASS and greater pressure on the resource which it represents.

It is perhaps worth bearing in mind what CAFCASS actually does.

Before any hearings take place in relation to cases affecting children, CAFCASS conducts social care and police checks. It then investigates and reports to the court on a child's welfare and also acts as the child's 'voice' in the court process.

In other words, CAFCASS is essential to ensure that such proceedings are dealt with swiftly and effectively, and that lasting solutions are put in place for parents and children alike.

Given the considerable workload which it already handles, the fear is that the fresh influx of work which has been seen in April and May may cause further delays.

For mothers and fathers unfamiliar with the court process, yet now having to argue over what they believe to be in their children's best interests, the potential for that process to be even more drawn out and even more stressful is something which will doubtless do little to ease nerves and overcome tensions.