Partner and head of Morecrofts’ family care team, Andrew Perrigo, looks at the fitness of the family justice system. He urges professionals to think about the power of the family rather than just ‘the rules’…
I qualified as a solicitor nearly 26 years ago. I joined the profession over thirty years ago. I have worked exclusively in the area of child protection for over two decades. And this week I learned something new – so I thought I’d share.
When a social worker first contacts a family to talk about a child it can be a scary time. There are lots of questions for a parent;
‘Do they want put my child in care?’ ‘Can they remove my child if I don’t want them to?’
There is a great power imbalance between the social worker and the family at that point. The social worker knows ‘the rules’ so they very often control the situation. Matters can escalate if the family do not ‘cooperate’ often with a suggestion that the police may become involved.
I’m a passionate believer that knowing your rights at that point is vital. Accessing independent legal advice from a child protection specialist solicitor is critical and can often make the difference between a child staying at home or living elsewhere. In my view, the solicitor restores the balance to the social worker/parent dynamic – as the solicitor knows ‘the rules’ too.
Likewise if the local authority issue care proceedings, having the best legal advice is invaluable during that process. Drawing on their experience, a good solicitor can assess your case and advise what you need to do so you can get the best outcome for you and your family.
There have been a lot of changes in how care proceedings are conducted in the last twenty years and not all of them for the better. When I first started practicing, we talked a lot about support, helping families be a family and what a good social worker could do to affect change. These days sadly there is more emphasis on process, timescales and safeguarding. The destination and the speed of the journey has become all-important, rather than the actual purpose of travel. This can make it very easy to lose track of what a case is actually about – a family.
The President of the Family Division this week talked about the pressure the family justice system is under, suggesting that the system was trying to run up a down escalator, which is a very good analogy for where things are in 2019. More cases and less time spent on them. More focus on ‘the rules’. It’s become the family justice factory.
So here’s what I learned this week;
There are some very special people in that ‘family justice factory’. They are not interested in the 26 week timetable. They are not interested in jargon or process or ‘the rules’.
They know better than anyone what needs to be done because have lived it long before you showed up. Whilst the lawyers have their experience and legal knowledge, they don’t know everything. These special people know what has to be done even it does not fit the timetable of proceedings and they will be here for their children long after the lawyers have gone.
They are the family who are very often forgotten in a justice system actually named after them. And they can be amazing and resilient and achieve great things. They can surprise you and remind you what is important in these cases. So as a child protection professional never forget the power of family when advising about ‘the rules’.
The President has recently set in motion consultation on the family justice system and I would encourage everyone to respond to that and help shape a system that is fit for purpose not just for lawyers and ‘the rules’ but for the families at the centre of it all.