‘First do no harm’, the much-misquoted principle underpinning the Hippocratic Oath, should equally apply to politicians but in practice it is easier said than done. MPs have to deal with a wide range of issues, be willing to turn their hand to anything and as a result tend to know less than the people they deal with while making decisions that hugely affect them.
While this wide perspective is important, it comes with the risk of getting it wrong. Like all MPs I spend a lot of time with members of the public but my surgery is usually packed with people for whom the ‘system’ has failed. So, as a newly appointed shadow Children’s Minister I am escaping the Westminster bubble to get a view from the frontline, kicking off a series of days shadowing children’s professionals around the country with a children’s lawyer in the family courts.
Over almost a decade working with children and young people, I saw how hard it is for the courts to balance competing views from parents, extended family, the social worker and children themselves. While children should be at the heart of any decision affecting them, too often their voices are lost.
Refreshingly, the professionals I met – judges, lawyers, children’s guardians and social workers- placed huge importance on this and there was remarkable agreement amongst them about what works, and what demands change.
Top of the list of concerns were the impending changes to legal aid. From April, parents who cannot pay themselves will not be represented in cases involving contact and residence arrangements, leading me to wonder how they will a) understand the process and b) how they will make their case. All of the parents I saw in Court were incredibly vulnerable and the support from their lawyer was critical to reaching any sort of compromise.
It seems to me this is really important, firstly because parents, even when they aren’t capable of providing the care the child needs, often have legitimate views about their child’s future, and secondly because, even where those concerns are ultimately not in the best interests of the child, having the chance to air them is essential if parents are to come to terms with the decision that is reached. That emotional acceptance is vital for both the parent and the child.
Successive reports have highlighted the difficulties some parents have instructing lawyers and understanding the court process, a situation which is worsened by the incredibly high threshold to access learning disability support from the local authority. If, from April, parents are unable to access legal advice, it is essential that they are entitled to support in another form, especially those with additional needs, like learning difficulties.
Professionals fear that, with increasing numbers of litigants-in-person, the courts will become even more congested. Good lawyers can and should keep cases out of court, by negotiating and reaching consensus with clients where mediation has either failed or been deemed inappropriate, which is something that the legal aid changes seem to overlook.
This need, to keep cases out of court if possible, provides another practical reason why the Government’s suggestion – that a presumption of ‘shared parenting’ should be written into the 1989 Children Act – seems wrong. A similar initiative in Australia encouraged more litigation, pitting parents’ interests against children’s. But it is surely also wrong in principle. For over two decades it has been clear in law that the child’s best interests are paramount, something the Government proposes to dilute. By contrast, where it seems the ‘system’ works best, is when all parties and their advocates focus together on how to make that principle a reality.
In practice, this is easier said than done. Next, I’m spending the day with an Independent Reviewing Officer to get the view from their perspective, but in the meantime please send me your views. With Labour’s policy review underway, it’s a golden opportunity for us to get this really important area of policy right for children.
Lisa Nandy is the shadow children’s minister