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Family Courts

Volume 118: debated on Monday 29 June 1987

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asked the Attorney-General if he will make a statement on the future of family courts.


asked the Attorney-General if he will make a statement on his consultation document on the establishment of family courts.

The Government published a consultation paper in May 1986 setting out three possible options for reform in the handling of family cases. That paper indicated that Ministers intended to be in a position to take decisions about this matter not later than December 1987. That remains the target, but the matter is a complex one and the Government cannot commit themselves precisly to that date or to any particular decision.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recognise that if, at the end of the day, for reasons of cost it was decided not to proceed with family courts, that decision would be met with widespread disappointment by those who are involved in trying to make sure that the system of family law in this country works as efficiently, effectively and humanely as possible? In those circumstances, would my right hon. and hon. Friend at least undertake to look at jurisdiction in the various levels of courts—magistrates, county courts and so on—to see how that jurisdiction might be simplified to make it more streamlined for the benefit of all involved in applying family law in this country?

I recognise my hon. Friend's long-standing interest in this important subject. Officials are still considering the resource implications of the various options upon which decisions can be made. I do not think that I should speculate upon the outcome of their considerations when it ultimately comes before my right hon. Friends to decide the matter. Plainly, the issue to which my hon. Friend has referred will be one to which importance will be attached.

Piecemeal reforms may be a 11 very well, but our court systems were arranged at a time when attitudes to children, divorce and maintenance were quite different from those of today. Before taking any final decisions, will my right hon. and learned Friend look again at the entirely innocent victims of the present arrangements, the 160,000 dependent children who are annually involved in divorce cases? There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that a coherent family court structure would best serve their needs.

I know my hon. Friend's interest and experience in these matters. The interests of children will, of course, be in the forefront of my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor's mind. That is a matter—

My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has a good deal more interest in this matter than has the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who is shouting from a sedentary position. I note what my hon. Friend has said, and I shall draw it to the attentiion of my noble Friend.

Does the Attorney-General not agree that in any restructuring of the court structure, which is long overdue, some effort should be made to ensure that the courts are adequately staffed and have adequate resources? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not also agree that the example that we now see in Crown courts and county courts, where lists cannot be met simply because of the shortage of court staff, does not give us much hope of confidence in the future of the court structure if he or his party is in charge?

Without commenting on general assertions, of course I acknowledge the importance of adequate staffing.

The precedent of the Crown Prosecution Service does not augur well for adequate staffing. Will the Attorney-General bear in mind that from the time of the Finer report there has been an increasing consensus among all those involved, both legal practitioners and those on the welfare side, that there must come about a unified, coherent court structure?

I note the strong expression of opinion voiced by the hon. Gentleman today. As I said, all these matters are being considered, and my right hon. Friends will take a decision as soon as possible.