Family CourtSolutionsUK

New dawn for separating families?

Dorset and North Wales in the UK have piloted a new Pathfinder scheme to replace the present family court system. Early enthusiasm has been led by the judges themselves. Could this be a new dawn for separating families and their children?

HHJ Gaynor Lloyd

No child has ever benefited from court delays and so the speed is brilliant and everybody gives us positive feedback … [rather than] lots and lots of adjourned hearings and dithering about in a system that doesn’t really support any of them.

HHJ Gaynor Lloyd on the Pathfinder pilot scheme

Pathfinder, a problem-solving approach, aims to improve on the usual court focused system. It’s early days for a full assessment and feedback. But there’s no doubting the broad welcome Jude Eyre of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory found when she interviewed two of the family court judges involved: HHJ Gaynor Lloyd and HHJ Chris Simmonds.

Jude Eyre of the Nuffield Family Justice Obseratory, talking with HHJ Chris Simmonds and HHJ Gaynor Lloyd about the Pathfinder pilot project.
It’s only good news

For the early good news and enthusiasm, watch the video from 22.15 to 27.40 for HHJ Gaynor Lloyd’s glowing account of Pathfinder’s successes in North Wales. Here’s some of the things she says:

It’s universally popular here with all of us … much less brutal for everybody … relevant issues are identified early they’re grappled with early. … a huge difference in identifying how serious the issues are … case progression officers are brilliant, a really good asset … they answer questions and alleviate a lot of the stress pre- and post- proceedings … a huge success has been gate-keeping, taking all of that initial case management off busy judges and legal advisors. … it’s a brilliant use of resource and far far more productive … gate-keepers give really robust and full directions and a very clear steer to the judge on how they are to deal with a case …

The next big win I’d say is a much more consistent response … two tracks for complex or simpler cases … the figures speak for themselves … fewer hearings are needed for even complex cases … because we’re focusing on the issue and problem solving we’re finding that the fact-finding hearings are not really useful unless you’ve got a really really stuck case … cases are finishing a lot quicker … [we’re] even having to cancel magistrates courts because there isn’t work [for them] because so many more cases are resolving … within our target of 12 weeks … CAFCASS workers [have more work but] don’t have to do the long reports.

HHJ Gaynor Lloyd

When asked about the negatives, HHJ Chris Simmonds was still positive about Pathfinder. In a word, he said, “resources” were the problem. Yet “with all of those [staffing] problems we were able to make Pathfinder work.”

Best practice?

Applying general principles of best practice for family courts, the Pathfinder approach is more teamed up and effective. Specialist CAFCASS social workers do more than gate-keeping. They meet with families before they reach lawyers and courts to identify what’s needed, check with other agencies involved, ensure case progression and provide early information and support. They engage families with care and support especially when there are concerns of risk. Judges appreciate being steered by them when cases do come to court.

In most cases it seems that most of the work gets done without needing court hearings with judges and lawyers. Avoiding delays is important. So is ensuring quality of the support and the decision-making. The focus shifts to the resourcing, training and support of the new class of key frontline workers.

The Australian family court judge, John Pascoe, called decades of legal and court reform “tinkering”. Pathfinder is not mere “tinkering”. Time will tell if it promises a new dawn for separating families, both preventing the harmful effects of the legal system as well as providing families and children with enough of the kind of guidance, decisions and support we know they need.

Pathfinder is well-conceived. If testing proves its worth, this new dawn will surely be rolled out everywhere.