Reflecting on my second year of training as a Justice First Fellow at Family Rights Group
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How has your time as a Justice First Fellow been, as you have moved into your second year of training?
My experience as a Justice First Fellow has been great – varied, busy, and really enjoyable! During my second year of training, I have been working particularly hard on developing my project. I have produced a suite of documents that focus on the legal and practice framework for reunification of children back to their parents who have been looked after in the care system. In addition, with a deeper knowledge of children law under my belt, I have really enjoyed providing advice via Family Rights Group’s online forums, and telephone advice service.
I have provided advice on a range of topics including children in need, pre-proceedings, kinship care, and children who are looked after the care system under a voluntary arrangement. I’ve had the pleasure of spending six months at an amazing family law firm, Goodman Ray, learning the ropes of day-to-day children law practice. This secondment gave me an invaluable grounding in understanding the realities of practice for a children law solicitor, which has been invaluable as I have resumed my role within Family Rights Group.
In addition to my legal work, I have had the opportunity to assist on a wide range of policy work at Family Rights Group. This includes work in relation to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Kinship Care. Developing my understanding of children law through private practice and working at Family Rights Group, has allowed me to experience the interplay between identifying issues, policy and campaigning, the resultant changes to the law and promoting wider access to justice.
For example, Family Rights Group has long campaigned for reforms to the legal aid regime to ensure that families can access the legal advice they need. Many grandparents, brothers, sisters and other relatives or friends are not entitled to free legal aid advice and representation when considering taking on the care of a child who cannot safely remain at home with their parents. This has significant implications for the child and their potential kinship carers. Family Rights Group led a number of other legal organisations in lobbying the Ministry of Justice resulting in a commitment by the Ministry of Justice in their 2019 Legal Action Support Plan to extend the scope of legal aid, in particular for special guardians, who have taken on the care of a child from their family and friends’ network.
In October 2022, the Ministry of Justice announced that kinship carers applying for special guardianship orders will be eligible for means and merits tested legal aid in private law proceedings. This extension will undoubtedly benefit a number of kinship carers, and improve access to justice for many who are looking to apply to court to secure a legal order to care for a child in their family.
Family Rights Group continues to campaign for legal aid to be extended to prospective special guardians who come forward in care proceedings, to be considered as a carer for a child. We also maintain the position that such legal aid should be non-means tested, given the means test means that many prospective special guardians, such as grandparents who own their own home but are still struggling financially, will not qualify for legal aid. During the cost of living crisis, the impact of this is only more pronounced.
What are some of the key highlights of your experience as a Justice First Fellow?
One of my many highlights was the opportunity to be a part of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. The Review was commissioned by the Government in 2019, with the aim of examining the children’s social care system and making recommendations to the Government for change. Family Rights Group has played an important role in the Review. Our Chair of the Board of Trustees, Angela Frazer-Wicks, sat as a member of the ‘Expert by Experience Board’ and Family Rights Group facilitated workshops where families with direct experience of the care system were able to share their experiences and suggestions as to how the system could be improved.
I had the opportunity to facilitate a session with kinship carers. A kinship carer is a family member or friend who is raising a child who cannot live with their parents. It was a real privilege to spend time with kinship carers sharing their stories. The strength to share lived experience for the benefit of changing wider systems is incredibly admirable and important for systematic change.
The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care’s final report was published in May 2022, and it was welcome to see the emphasis placed on supporting children to live safely within their families. Especially, the recommendations around the greater levels of support which are needed to assist children to live within their wider kinship network if they cannot live at home. A strong theme from the lived experience panel was that families want to step in to take on the care of their loved ones, but that they need better and more accessible support, such as legal advice about different kinship arrangements.
Off the back of the Review’s recommendations, I have also had the opportunity to do some detailed legal research into the role of the Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO). Every looked after child must have an IRO and their main duties are to make sure the child’s care plan is carried out and effective to the child’s needs. The Review recommends that the role of the IRO is removed and instead promotes children in care having an independent advocate.
In considering how this recommendation could impact children and their families, I spent time looking closely at how and why the IRO role was established, its history and criticisms and support for the role. My research into this topic included looking at explanatory notes for the introductory legislation. This provided an interesting snapshot of Parliament’s intention when introducing the role.
The IRO role was introduced after the House of Lords concluded that the courts have no general power to monitor or discharge children’s services’ functions. For example, it was not for the court to monitor that children’s services had implemented a child’s care plan. The IRO role is independent from children’s services and was established to ensure checks and balances are taken outside of the court system to protect children in the care system.
In protecting the best interests of the child, an IRO must ensure a child’s wishes and feelings are given due consideration, and they have the power to make a formal complaint to children’s services on behalf of the child. The proposal of replacing an IRO with an advocacy service is not like for like and could potentially be a huge erosion of children’s rights. Advocates have a duty to ensure that a child’s voice is heard but as outlined above, the IRO role goes beyond that.
Family Rights Group is working with organisations concerned with the rights and welfare of children and families, to highlight some of the considerations about this recommendation.
So, tell us what you learned from your secondment?
I learned a great deal during my six months at Goodman Ray. Working alongside experienced solicitors as they advised and supported their clients through often very difficult court proceedings was integral to my learning and development as a social welfare lawyer. I learned how to actively listen to clients and take instructions to achieve the best outcome for them and their children in care proceedings. Understanding that the very nature of the court proceedings pays an emotional, practical, and financial cost for all those involved is imperative and is something that I will carry with me into practice as a newly qualified solicitor.
In terms of court practice, instructing and then clerking for leading and junior counsel on complex fact-finding hearings provided me with a masterclass in the art of advocacy. I learned that cross-examination is an art, not a science. Similarly, I was able to take a step back and understand how care proceedings pan out in reality, from hearing to hearing. Working on fast-paced public law proceedings helped me learn to be both proactive and reactive to clients – a great learning curve in the development of my client care skills, and the skill of working accurately, at pace.
A particular point of interest during my secondment, was seeing how remote justice is working at this point in 2022, and how the benefits and pitfalls of this new way of working play out. The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (NFJO) conducted two rapid reviews on remote justice in the midst of the pandemic. The NFJO said that family members attending remote hearings found it difficult to participate and had not understood what was happening during hearings. In my experience, I found that many difficulties arose for clients and other parties at hearings where English was not their first language, and they required an interpreter. At remote hearings, such parties would need to have each submission interpreted, and then digest that quickly, before the legal representative or party moved on to the next point. This proved especially difficult when the Judge or barristers spoke at speed – a lesson in making sure that my client has fully understood everything that is going on at a hearing, even against the pressure of the court timetable.
I made sure when working with clients involved in remote hearings to take additional time to reassure them that their involvement in the court process was important and that our job both in court and subsequently was to ensure they were heard and able to participate fully.
Reflecting on this experience, it reiterated the importance of Family Rights Group’s strategic priority for children and families’ voices and experiences to drive decision making at an individual and strategic level within the child welfare and the family justice system. The most recent statistics produced by the government show that there are nearly 81,000 children who are looked after in the care system in England. This number has continually risen since 1985.
In the last year, having experienced working in both private practice and Family Rights Group it has instilled the importance of working to create a more socially just society in which the child welfare and family justice systems support children to live safely and thrive within their family, whilst strengthening the family and community networks of those children who cannot live at home, is more important than ever.
My experience as a Justice First Fellow at Family Rights Group has helped me to develop my knowledge of the law in relation to children, and its application to both advice and policy work. I very much look forward to building on these skills, and to continue to use the law as a tool to effect social change as I move into working as a qualified solicitor.