The Government’s draft Children and Families Bill has recently come under pre-legislative scrutiny by the UK Parliament’s Justice Committee.
Pre-legislative scrutiny allows the relevant committee to comment on the draft form of proposed legislation, and make recommendations for change before the Government officially introduces the Bill to Parliament.
The Government announced its plans to introduce a Children and Families Bill in May 2012, arguing that new legislation was needed to deliver better support for families, and to reduce delays in the family justice and adoption systems. The Bill would include provisions to:
● Speed up care proceedings in family courts so children do not face long and unnecessary hold ups in finding permanent, loving and stable homes – with the introduction of a new six-month time limit on cases and other reforms. Children currently wait an average of 55 weeks for court decisions.
● Stop damaging delays by social workers in matching parents to ethnic minority children - black children already take 50% longer to be adopted than white children or those of other ethnicities.
● Strengthen the law so children have a relationship with both parents if families break up – if that is in their best interest.
● Require parents in dispute to consider mediation as a means of settling that dispute rather than litigation by making attendance at a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting a statutory prerequisite to starting court proceedings.
● Strengthen the powers of the Children’s Commissioner – to champion children’s rights and hold government to account for legislation and policy.
Following its pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, the Justice Committee has published a draft report on its findings. In summary, the Committee says it broadly welcomes the proposed changes to family justice set out in the Bill, but continues to have significant concerns about the draft clause on shared parenting.
The Committee welcomed the Government's commitment to reducing delay within the care process, and the work being undertaken by some local authorities and the Courts to achieve a shorter timetable in care cases to the benefit of children.
The Committee was less positive about the private law clauses of the draft Bill. It welcomed the focus on providing information about and assessing separating couples for mediation, but continued to be sceptical about the need for and effect of changes to contact and residence orders.
The Committee continues to have significant concerns about the clause intended by the Government to encourage parental involvement, on the grounds that any new presumption or legislative statement might detract from the principle that the best interests of the child are paramount.
The Committee also expressed its disappointment that the Government had not brought forward draft legislation on enforcement for it to consider as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny.