Open Door? (5)
In June 2002, the United Kingdom Government handed over a grant of £150,000 to the charity, Families Need Fathers (FNF). The purpose of the grant was to enable FNF to set up branches and to train volunteers to help parents through the offer of advice and support in Family Law matters. At the same time, an edict was issued that in future CAFCASS (1) reports could only be seen by parties to a case, their solicitor and barrister. Anyone else would need a Court Order to see the reports.
Families Need Fathers and other voluntary organisations involved with Family Law could be completely undermined by the above edict.
In the past, Court Welfare Reports could be shown to a ‘legal adviser’. As there was no strict definition as to who might constitute a ‘legal adviser’, the door was left open to the voluntary sector to dispense legal advice in relation to these reports.
When a party to a Family Law case seeks assistance from an ‘advice shop’, or a helpline, they generally seek help with Court processes, instructions to solicitors and barristers, emotional support and, often, advice about CAFCASS reports. Quite frequently, they seek the advice of a lay advocate, or a Mackenzie Friend, to support them in Court.
In future, Contact Centres, mediation services, Lay Advocates and Mackenzie Friends, researchers and charity advisers will need express permission from Family Courts (in the form of a Court Order) to have sight of CAFCASS Reports.
The edict has completed the circle of secrecy and dishonesty present in the Family Courts. Solicitors and Barristers will continue to grow fat on the rich pickings of despair – feasting on the bloated carcass of public funding. CAFCASS officers will still be the ‘Untouchables’ as their work will not be open to scrutiny, or complaint, from outside the legal establishment.
There has been a long tradition of self-litigants in the English and Welsh Legal system. They are usually people who cannot afford to hire solicitors of barristers.
Self-litigants have a right enshrined in law to the services of a Mackenzie Friend in Family Law cases. The Mackenzie Friend is allowed to quietly advise the self-litigant on points of law during a trial. At the discretion of the Court, the Friend can act as an advocate in the case. \their general role is to support the self-litigant in all aspects of the case – from filling in forms, the analysis of Court reports to legal assistance during Court proceedings. Mackenzie Friends offer their services for free and save the public purse thousands of pounds in public funding for Family Law cases each year.
Will Mackenzie Friends be compelled to leave the Court room when CAFCASS reports are discussed in the future?
As CAFCASS officers are regarded as the ‘eyes and ears’ of Judges, their reports form the main basis of many Family Law cases and, as such, self-litigants do need Mackenzie Friends to have sight of these reports if they are to make a positive contribution in Court.
CAFCASS, the Courts and the Government have created a rod for their own backs with this ridiculous edict, forcing application for a Court Order before a CAFCASS, or other court report, can be disclosed to a person other than a solicitor, barrister or a party to the case. The edict will be routinely ignored in the future because it has no basis in law. Any enforcement of the edict will be open to legal challenge. The legal establishment runs the risk that the voluntary sector will withdraw its co-operation as Stakeholders in CAFCASS and all other aspects of Family Law.
As the Government has effectively abdicated responsibility for Contact Centres, mediation services, advice shops, helplines and research into areas of Family Law, it will suffer keenly from the loss of co-operation from the voluntary sector.
CAFCASS must not hide behind the skirts of the Courts and Government. It has to stand up and be counted on this issue. It has to respect the wishes of its stakeholders for an open court system.
- A.G., June 2003.
Copy sent to Hewson, Head of CAFCASS, on 7june03.