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Family Justice Observatory sets out goals for next five years

Mar 4, 2022

In his March blog, family law blogger John Bolch examines what may be coming down the line in terms of policy, policies and ‘getting it right first time’ around issues facing children and families and collaborating with others to bring about change in practice.

Those who do not follow the workings of the family justice system may not have heard of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (henceforth ‘NFJO’), but this important organisation is likely to have an enormous impact upon the future of family justice in England and Wales.

What is the NFJO?

The NFJO was first proposed in 2015 by the Nuffield Foundation, an independent charitable trust “with a mission to advance educational opportunity and social well-being.” The trust funds research that informs social policy, primarily in education, welfare and justice.

The NFJO has its origins in the Family Justice Review, which was set up in 2010 to consider radical reform of the existing systems for: resolving disputes about contact with children and where they should live when couples break up (‘private law’); the process of divorce; and processes when local authorities apply to the courts to take children into care (‘public law’). The Review, chaired by Sir David Norgrove, published its report in November 2011, setting out its recommendations to improve the family justice system.

Issues identified at the time

One of the many problems identified by the Family Justice Review was the limited use of research findings and analyses of administrative data in family justice decision-making. In 2015, following discussion with key experts, the Nuffield Foundation published a report titled: ‘Towards a Family Justice Observatory’. In this report the Foundation set out its intention to try to improve the generation and application of research, through the establishment of a ‘Family Justice Observatory’.

The Foundation subsequently established the NFJO, and is funding the Observatory’s pilot phase from 2019 to 2023.

The NFJO’s aims are:

  1. Supporting the analysis of national data and linking data from different sources to better understand the experience of children and families in the family justice system.

  2. Researching issues facing children and families and collaborating with others to bring about change in practice.

  3. Enabling decision-makers to access the latest data and research evidence.

The NFJO has already published research on a number of topics, including children’s experience of private law proceedings and the use of remote court hearings during the pandemic. Current focuses include young people and the care system, babies who are subject to care proceedings, and separating families and private law proceedings.

The findings and recommendations of the NFJO can be expected to have a considerable influence upon family justice decision-making in the years to come.

Five goals

On the 24th of February the NFJO published its Strategy for 2022 to 2026. The Strategy begins with the following words:

“During our first three years we have talked to children and families, professionals working in and with the court, government, academics and more. Together with the published evidence, these conversations paint a picture of systems and services under immense pressure. The family justice system, designed to act in a child’s best interests, is not always effective in doing so.”

The Strategy then sets out the Observatory’s goals for the next five years, as follows:

  1. Right support, right time – this is about keeping family problems, both private and public law, out of court, by offering support to help families resolve their problems before they reach court. The NFJO says that: “Where cases do progress to court there is little evidence that interaction with court process is helping to promote positive change.” Accordingly it will collate and promote evidence to inform ways to reduce the need for the family court to intervene, and where it is important for matters to be resolved in court, it will identify ways that the court can provide “a positive opportunity for change”.

  2. A stronger focus on problem solving – the NFJO believes that the adversarial nature of the family court is too often counterproductive. Disputes become entrenched and parents feel unfairly judged. There is good evidence, they say, that a ‘problem-solving’ approach can be more effective, where the authority of the court is combined with multi-agency support to ensure that every last effort is made to help a family resolve its difficulties before a court judgment is made about who a child should live with. Accordingly, they will share the evidence about problem-solving approaches with all parts of the family justice system, and explore how a problem-solving approach might be applied to more cases.

  3. Children, parents and families as active participants – the NFJO says that children, parents and family members report that court proceedings are often difficult to navigate, and that they do not feel listened to or understood. They therefore intend to share and expand the evidence relating to children and parent participation in proceedings, in order to inform future practice.

  4. Inequalities are recognised and responded to – the NFJO points out that significant disparities relating to geography, ethnicity, income, disability and other characteristics are known to exist, but because practice develops at a local level and the system is under constant strain, there is rarely the opportunity for those working in the system to identify, analyse and respond to the inequalities that present themselves. They will therefore seek to identify these inequalities and encourage ways to address them.

  5. Greater collaboration – lastly, the NFJO points out that there are many different professionals working in the family justice system, and that they can feel powerless to effect change when they identify issues that are wider than their individual practice. The NFJO says that changes in practice are only possible where professionals work together around a shared understanding of the issues and how to address them. Accordingly, they say that: “In all our work we will foster an approach that encourages dialogue across professional boundaries and supports leadership in a time of great challenge and complexity.”

Some of these goals are already featuring in the thinking of family justice system decision makers. We can expect the family justice system of the future to be significantly coloured by all of them.

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