Victoria Walters, Solicitor in the Family team at Coodes Solicitors, comments on the launch of an inquiry into the Children and Families Act 2014.
As a Family lawyer, I welcomed the introduction of the Children and Families Act in 2014. This wide-ranging act brought in a host of provision for children, families and people with special educational needs or disabilities. At its heart, it focused on improving the lives of children, particularly the most vulnerable.
This was relevant to much of my work because it introduced changes designed to benefit children whose parents were separating as well as those who are involved with social services, including children being adopted.
Now, eight years on, the House of Lords has launched an inquiry into the Children and Families Act 2014. The purpose of this scrutiny is to see if the act has lived up to its aims of improving the lives of the most vulnerable young people.
With a record 80,850 children in England and Wales currently in care, it is vital that the act is delivering on its original aims.
The welfare of children
As a Family lawyer, one of the most important changes I saw after the introduction of the act was a new approach to arrangements for children when parentsseparate . Contact Orders and Residence Orders were replaced with Child Arrangement Orders. This shifted the focus away from one parent being perceived to have more control and onto the most important question of what is best for the children. In most cases, this means having time with both parents.
While it was previously common to see cases becoming distorted by separated couples fighting over contact and residence arrangements, the change has helped court proceedings stay focused on the key issues.
Another group to benefit from the act are children in foster care. Prior to 2014, it was not unusual for children to be fostered by two or three different families before they were adopted. Of course, this often meant significant disruption and potential trauma for the child. The act brought in the concept of Fostering to Adopt, which massively simplified and speeded up the process for foster parents who wanted to adopt.
Resolving cases within a set timeframe
One of the most significant changes brought about in the act was a commitment to shorten timeframes of cases involving children. Before 2014, children awaiting adoption, for example, frequently waited for a year or more for their futures to be determined.
Under the act, cases should be dealt with within six months. This has led to a greater focus on timescales.
Here in Cornwall, where I have been a Family lawyer for more than 15 years, we saw cases being dealt with more quickly after the act was introduced. However, in recent years this has slowed down. Nationally, the average time for these cases to be resolved is now 45 weeks. It is not clear why the six-month timeframe is not being met, although disruption caused by the pandemic is likely to be a factor. This inquiry will hopefully shed light on the reasons why many cases are taking longer to resolve.
What will the inquiry into the Children and Families Act 2014 deliver?
The House of Lords Select Committee on the Children and Families Act 2014 is now inviting people to submit evidence and feedback on the act.
We do not know what the inquiry will uncover and what changes might be introduced as a result. However, I think we can all agree that it is vitally important that the act delivers the best possible provision for those people who need it most.
It will be interesting to see what the inquiry reveals about timeframes for cases involving children. While it is important for young people’s lives not to be held up unnecessarily, some complex cases require more time to get the right outcome for the child. It could be that we need greater flexibility around timeframes to ensure each case is dealt with in the best possible way.
We may also need to review some of the ways in which court proceedings have changed during the pandemic. Most court hearings are still being held remotely, via video call. While this can be quicker and more efficient, this approach is not always ideal for vulnerable people. This inquiry may give us some answers on the future for remote court proceedings.
I will watch developments with interest over the coming months. After all, this is more important now than ever. In the last year, the number of children going into care went up by one percent. While this may not sound like a significant increase, it represents more than 800 young lives. For those individuals, we need to get this right.
For advice on these issues, please contact Victoria Walters on Victoria.email@example.com