Family law is one of those areas where it seems there is almost constant review and reflection of how we do things and if we can do it better. Family law solicitors are all keen to learn, improve and make the system better for separating and divorcing families.
There is great concern over the length of time cases are taking via the court system and so that naturally raises the question; can we do better.
Enter The Pathfinder Project. This is a project changing ‘how things are done’ in the court system and it is being trialled in court in Dorset and North Wales. So far, the reviews of those working in the project are glowing.
In the standard process, CAFCASS or CAFCASS Cymru in Wales undertake initial safeguarding enquiries and then send a safeguarding letter to the court within 3-4 weeks of receiving the case.
This will be followed by a First Hearing and Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA) but at that point the information available is quite limited and if further information is needed the Court will adjourn to allow more time to gather that information. Parties being present in court is an essential part of this process. There is then a further delay whislt information that is needed is obtained.
The Pathfinder approach is quite different – a key focus of the model is on getting information as early as possible in the process to make informed decisions.
CAFCASS or CAFCASS Cymru, or (Children’s Services/Social Services in situation where the families is already involved them) undertake a Child Impact Assessment.
A Child Impact Assessment is a much more in-depth information gathering exercise and includes speaking with the parents and other agencies where appropriate (such as police, the local authority or domestic abuse agencies).
There is also a presumption that children will have the opportunity to be seen and heard at this stage. This is new and this is important.
All this information is gathered together in a 6-week period and then the court conducts a further “gatekeeping” in week 7 – which means it uses that information to decide what needs to happen next for that family in terms of Court hearings.
Where appropriate, families are supported to engage in out of court dispute resolutions which can avoid the need for parties to have to come to court at all. That could be mediation or arbitration. If as part of the Child Impact enquiries the parties are supported to reach an agreement this this can be reflected in order, again without the need for them to attend.
Where families can’t reach agreement or the Child Impact Report identifies safety issues which require further input from the Court, the case is given a court date – but unlike in standard private law proceedings, the type of Court hearing the families first attend can be different depending on the needs identified in the Child Impact Report.
Also, where the Child Impact Report identifies further information is still needed, this can be ordered in appropriate cases without the need for families to come court.
The model focuses on working with families and less adversarial/combative language used in the court process to support a more problem-solving approach.
A core feature of the model is the involvement of children from the very beginning of proceedings so that in most cases the child is given the opportunity to participate in proceedings in the way they want to.
The model is built around the child being involved at a much earlier stage and multi-agency working – the court is an active partner with local domestic abuse organisations, mediation services, Cafcass and the local authority. There is a focus on gathering information from the people in the best place to help the court understand the needs of the child and their family.
In situations where there are concerns about domestic abuse, families are referred to specialist domestic abuse agencies for a risk assessment and ongoing support. Domestic abuse service can also provide feedback on any work a child might be engaging with, which the Judges find is a great way to hear their true wishes and feelings.
The pathfinder model allows the court to break down barriers and better integrate with services. One of the many benefits of this is that if any welfare issues are identified, the court is easily able to signpost or refer into the services of their partners. This multi-agency approach has also meant that IDVAs – specialist independent advocates – are easily able to come into the courtroom to support the welfare of vulnerable survivors as they go through proceedings.
I think this is a really exciting development and from all the feedback so far, it seems to be working really well for children and families. It also appears to be significantly shortening the court time needed to help families resolve arrangements and that can only be a good thing. I really like the idea of involving the children right at the early stage.
Hopefully, the project will be coming to a court near you soon! In the meantime, we can help you resolve disagreements over the arrangements for your children or to lead you through the court process. Contact us for advice.