The family justice review produced recommendations that were implemented on 22 April, producing the largest ever change in the family justice system in our lifetime, and I pay tribute to all those from the president of the family division downwards who delivered that. The purpose was to have a single united family court that can sit anywhere with any level of judge, to ensure that cases are dealt with more quickly in the interests of children and families, and that children’s needs are always put first in all family proceedings.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he explain how the reforms that he is taking through at the moment will ensure that cases, particularly those involving the most vulnerable children, will be dealt with efficiently, quickly and justly?
There are two major changes that will lead to a speedier and more just outcome, particularly for children. The first is a requirement that all cases involving care proceedings will be dealt with in 26 weeks, or half a year—only a couple of years ago, it was double that—and if there has to be an exception in the interests of justice, that will be made. Secondly, experts’ reports will not be commissioned and take up a huge amount of time unless that is necessary in the interests of the child. The process will be speedier, and children will have certainty much more quickly, as will their families and local authorities.
But is not the Minister aware that the withdrawal of legal aid in family cases has caused a massive increase in litigants in person, which will undercut and undermine any move towards shorter times for dealing with these cases? The Government have undercut and undermined their own policy, and strangled it at birth.
That is very easy rhetoric from the hon. Gentleman, but the evidence does not support it. The evidence is that there were always litigants in person in the family courts, and the time it is taking for cases outside the public system to be dealt with has not fundamentally changed. They take on average between 16 and 18 weeks now, as they did before. In addition, legal aid has been retained for most of the important issues. In particular, legal aid is available for people to be assessed for mediation, and for mediation. For those who go to mediation, seven out of 10 have a successful outcome, which means that they do not need to contest their matrimonial matters in the court.
The single court is a good idea, and I am pleased that the Government are taking it forward, but a considerable body of evidence from solicitors who specialise in family law suggests that judges are under huge pressure to allow contact too early in cases, even in those with safeguarding issues such as alcohol abuse and violence. How will the Minister make sure that family courts are closely monitored to ensure that vulnerable children are not put at unnecessary risk?
I respect the right hon. Gentleman’s expertise in this area. I was speaking to the court in Cardiff about these issues only on Thursday last week. One protection is that the 26-week norm can be extended in the interests of justice in every case. Secondly, from the president downwards, there is a regular review of exactly what is happening. There will be report backs, as well as a public report back to Parliament on a regular basis, and regular reviews to make sure that vulnerable children in the sort of families he describes are not put at risk. The whole purpose is to ensure that fewer children are at risk and more children are protected and cared for better.