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NEF - Better Courts take time - but they’re worth it

Blog posted by : BY: STEPHEN WHITEHEAD (29th July 2014)

It will come as no surprise to family lawyers that from 2007 to 2013 a third of all care proceedings cases involved mothers who had been through the process before. Whether in the criminal or civil arena, courts working with the most vulnerable see the same faces appearing before them time and time again.

We all know this sad and expensive revolving-door effect is the result of a justice system ill-equipped to tackle the complex social issues which underlie legal cases.

Last month Gazette readers heard from Judge Nicholas Crichton of London’s Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC). Since opening in 2008, the court has handled care proceedings involving parental substance misuse.

At the FDAC, dedicated judges supervise and motivate families through the duration of their case, working closely with a team of specialists to painstakingly unpick the issues that have landed their clients in court in the first place – co-ordinating addiction treatment and more personalised support. This approach is paying off.

It is this kind of court innovation we desperately need to start replicating across the UK, but those wishing to kick-start problem-solving justice projects in their own courts face a long and punishing climb. Courts are inherently, and perhaps rightly, wary of change, and even the merest scraps of funding can take months and years to win.

A challenge then, but not an impossible one. Take Plymouth Community Court, Sefton’s problem-solving court, or the specialist domestic violence courts which exist all over the country. These examples show courts finding new ways to build on their role of legal arbiters to identify and help address complex social issues. There is much we can learn from the FDAC and its contemporaries about what it takes to clear the hurdles to innovation.

Having an obvious, well-understood and well-evidenced target issue is one lesson. When FDAC was conceived, the burden of parental substance misuse on courts, social services and, of course, children, was the subject of major public attention. The fact that 64% of care proceedings in inner London involved parental substance misuse gave Crichton and his colleagues a clear picture of the problem they needed to solve.

Judges should not underestimate the significant role they can play in getting new projects off the ground. They have authority, networks, legal expertise, and first-hand knowledge of the problems facing the courts: star qualities that can make all the difference at the outset. Without the jump-start given to FDAC by Judge Crichton as a founder, advocate and one of the first judges to hear its cases, it is unlikely I would be writing about it today. Judges have the tools, and some might say the responsibility, to respond.

There is power, too, in networks. FDAC was driven by a team of people with a diverse set of knowledge and resources: Judge Crichton himself, but also academics, local authority leaders, independent legal experts and central government officials. Each of them made their own contribution to getting the project off the ground.

The inspiration for FDAC originally came from California’s highly successful Family Drug Treatment Courts – though extensive work was needed to tailor the model to the very different context of inner London. Would-be innovators must become adept at seeing what has worked well elsewhere and how this could be transplanted to their own context.

The bottom line, perhaps, is that innovation takes patience. Securing the necessary permissions and funding for FDAC took years of painstaking work, developing and refining the proposal and building links with the right people in government. Innovators can help courts find better ways of working, but, like the people behind FDAC, they must be imaginative, enthusiastic and above all determined.

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