Child care law experts call for dedicated family court following overcrowding evidence

Child care law experts call for dedicated family court following overcrowding evidence

Dr Carol Coulter

The Child Care Law Reporting Project (CCLRP) has called for the establishment of a specialist family court with dedicated child care days following new evidence about over-crowding in the courts.

The CCLRP recently conducted a national survey of child care in the District Court, attending a full-day sitting in 35 court venues covering each of the 24 districts between October 2018 and January 2019.

Its reporters saw a wide variation in the physical conditions of the courts, the facilities available to parties and witnesses, the volumes of cases dealt with and the manner in which lists were conducted.

Dr Carol Coulter, director of the CCLRP, said: “Overall, this overview of child care proceedings in all the districts, including more than one court in some districts, underlines the point made previously by the CCLRP that a specialist family court is urgently needed, with dedicated child care days separate from the private family list.”

One of the most striking issues that emerged from the survey was the volumes of cases dealt with by certain courts, and the difficulties this posed both for the judges attempting to deal with child care and for the parties.

In one particular court on one day, where there is just one sitting judge, there were 139 cases listed, consisting of crime, general civil law, family law and child care. In another district, the judge had over 120 cases listed on family law days.

Dr Coulter said: “It is clear from the above review of all the districts that in some of them the courts are severely over-worked, which cannot but have an effect on how child care proceedings are dealt with. Most districts have only one judge to deal with sometimes enormous lists, which include criminal and civil matters as well as large volumes of private family law.

“In a quarter of the courts we attended, child care was included in general lists, meaning that vulnerable families had to attend court along with those accused of crime. Even where child care is included in family law lists, there can be a danger of tense and aggressive scenes around the court, especially where there are allegations of domestic violence. Privacy for all the litigants and witnesses is often lacking, there is sometimes limited seating and no access to food, water or hot beverages.

“Specialist family courts, with specially trained judges and court staff, in a number of venues around the country, would mean that what are often vulnerable families could have their cases dealt with sensitively in a suitable environment, where their privacy would be assured.”

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