A little known addition to Canary Wharf has been the family court, which has occupied offices in Westferry Circus since December.
The East London Family Court – opened by the president of the Family Division, Sir James Munby – deals with all cases involving family work, including divorce, child contact, adoption and local authority child protection cases.
Serving 10 boroughs, including Tower Hamlets, Newham and Greenwich, the court is a single point of entry for all cases of this sensitive nature, taking on the role previous occupied by a network of magistrates and county courts that existed before.
The system has been overhauled in other ways too. According to designated family judge Her Honour Judge Carol Atkinson says this is all to the good.
Judge Atkinson told The Wharf: “One major difference, which has been very good, is that more experienced judges and magistrates are all under one roof. We often sit together at lunch and they can ask us advice on any cases they have.”
Bringing judges of varying experience together is part of an overall push to create a more efficient process. Cases are dealt with within a target of 26 weeks – around half the time care and supervision cases were taking around three years ago.
Judge Atkinson says east London is leading the way with the average case dealt with in around 30 weeks, despite the court dealing with the broadest demographic of the three London family courts.
The Government has begun to implement these changes this year as part of what its called “the largest family justice reforms in generations” following a scathing report from the independent Family Justice Review in 2011.
Among these changes, along with the above, is the use of DNA testing; allowing a child greater say in their future; and creating more transparency of the system.
From September all family court judges in England will be able to order DNA tests to determine a child’s parentage.
This follows two pilot schemes in Taunton and Bristol set up following anecdotal evidence that courtroom arguments led to delays in divorce cases, particularly where parentage was in question.
Voice Of The Child campaign
There is a push to make sure that all young people aged 10 and over involved in any type of family case have their views heard.
Judge Atkinson said: “We have always been listening to what the child wants in every case but there is more of an emphasis on making sure any vulnerable witnesses are listened to.
“We’re well set up for it here – we have four courts with video links so if a child doesn’t want to be in the court they don’t have to be.”
The changes have come from information from the Family Justice Young People’s Board – a group of around 40 children and young people who have been through the family justice system or who have an interest in children’s rights and the family courts.
Board member Bethany Shepherd, 19, said: “In my case, I had to wait four years before my voice was heard and I was considered to be too young to know my own mind or listened to individually and simply just lumped together with my younger sister.
“This is far too long and meant that I spent much of my childhood fighting just to have my voice heard. The work being done currently on the voice of the child is really encouraging to see and is definitely a step in the right direction for family justice.”
Simon Hughes, MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and Minister of State for Justice and Civil Liberties told The Wharf: “We don’t want children to think it’s their responsibility to make the decision, but that they can have more of an input.”
The president of the Family Division, Sir James is currently carrying out a consultation on further increasing transparency in the family courts.
Mr Hughes said: “The Government is keen for proceedings to be as open as possible, but the really challenging thing is making sure a child in family court proceedings is never identified.
“My feeling is there’s not going to be any big or dramatic changes, but we won’t know until he gives his findings later this year.”
Go to gov.uk/government/organisations/ministry-of-justice to find out more about the family court system.