02/03/2005

MPs recommend changes for child access system

A report by the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee has called for more child access cases to be dealt with through mediation, not through the court system.

The report, the result of a five month inquiry into the effectiveness of the family court system, stated that many cases currently being dealt with by family courts could be better resolved through professional mediation and negotiation. The court system should only be used as a last resort, the Committee said, in cases involving issues of abuse or domestic violence or situations where negotiations have completely broken down.

However, the report also stated that courts needed to make a greater effort to enforce court orders and also to encourage better contact between children and non-resident parents.

The Committee rejected claims that the court system was biased against fathers or non-resident parents, but accepted that they were often disadvantaged because of delays, a lack of judicial continuity and the failure to enforce court orders.

The Committee also rejected the idea that there should be a legal presumption of equal access. The report said that courts must do more to ensure that relationships between children and non-resident parents are sustained, in cases where the child's safety is not an issue. The report suggested that this could be achieved by amending the 'welfare checklist' in the Children's Act 1989, which provide a list of principles that could be used as a guide on matters involving children.

The report also recommended more transparency in family court cases and improved public and media access to hearings, which it says would help dispel accusations of bias and help improve scrutiny.

Commenting on the report, the committee's chairman MP Alan Beith said: "This has been a complex and emotive inquiry involving issues on which very strong views are held. But one fact is abundantly clear; the family justice system must have the child’s best interest at its core."

(KMcA/SP)

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