Clearly, participation in the family court is difficult for all those involved, whatever stage of the process they are at. Through our legal support action plan, we are committed to working with the Law Society to improve delivery of family legal aid, be that in the court or through mediation.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I was pleased recently to join students and staff at Anglia Ruskin University’s law clinic to celebrate the first year of their Support@Court service, which helps litigants in person to navigate the family courts. It is a great initiative, but Sarah Calder, the director, tells me that provision is patchy, and litigants in person all too frequently feel intimidated by facing a lawyer. Do the Government support the Bach Commission’s proposal that legal aid should be brought back into scope for all cases involving children?
I am pleased to hear about that example at Anglia Ruskin University. Our litigants in person strategy is a very important part of what we do. We have been spending £1.5 million a year hitherto. As part of the legal support action plan, we will improve that to £3 million a year and work with judges to ensure that all litigants in person are supported during the court process.
I am sure we were all shocked by the example raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). My first decision was to ensure that the inquiry panel was established, and it will look carefully at what the Children’s Commissioner has to say. The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that children should always be at the heart of the decision-making process in the courts, and I will look carefully at what the Children’s Commissioner has said.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. The Government are rightly reviewing practices in the family courts, including practice direction 12J, which looks at how the court is protecting children and victims. More than 30 expert lawyers, including the Victims’ Commissioner, have voiced their concerns that the review is not in-depth enough to look at the issues in sufficient detail and makes no mention of consulting family court lawyers. Do the Government acknowledge those concerns, and will they act on them?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s initial support. There is a balance to be struck between speed of action, getting the right decision-making process in place and coming up with the right recommendations. We have lawyers who are experienced in family law on the panel, and we have the victims’ voice through the involvement of Women’s Aid. I think we have the right mix on the panel, and a three-month time limit is right for them to reach their conclusions, which we can then seek to put in place.
In children’s matters in the family courts, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service is treated as an expert witness. Is the Minister aware that CAFCASS has no training for the function it performs, has no guidelines, keeps no record of its recommendations and does not give sworn statements, so cannot be held to account for the recommendations it makes?
I am grateful for that interesting perspective in my early days in the job. I will clearly have to go away and look at what CAFCASS says and does, and I look forward to meeting it. It is important to bear in mind that, in these cases, the interests of the child have to be paramount—the Children Act 1989 is very clear about that, and judges are clear in how they interpret that obligation.