Update: Parliament’s Debates On Children’s Social Care, Baby Deaths, and Justice.

A debate in the House of Commons about children’s social care, selected by the Backbench Business Committee, is scheduled to take place later on today. The motion, led by Tim Loughton MP, is entitled, “That this House has considered children’s social care in England.” No exact time for the debate has been given, though it is likely to take place after 4pm. The debate forms part of an agenda which will explore several topics, including baby loss awareness week.

The session, which begins at 2.30pm, will start with prayers, a practice which takes place in both the Lords and the Commons, and will then move on to Private Business. Today’s Private Business is the University of London Bill, whose parliamentary agent is law firm Pinsent Masons LLP, and which has been sponsored by Sir Christopher Chope. Chope is perhaps best known as the Conservative politician who tried to block a Bill  which aimed to make Upskirting a criminal offence.

That Business will then be followed by 21 oral questions about justice, which will be fielded to the Secretary of State For Justice, David Gauke MP. Questions include:

  • What steps is the Government taking to improve the court experience for victims and witnesses?
  • What discussions has he had with the Secretary of State for Education on breaking the link between school exclusion and prison?
  • What steps is the Government taking to ensure that vulnerable people are protected by the justice system?
  • What assessment has he made of the role of employment and education in reducing rates of reoffending?

Questions will then be followed by Business Of The Day, which today features a ten minute discussion, referred to as a Ten Minute Rule Motion, about assaults on people working in the retail sector. It is in this section of the agenda that the Backbench Business Committee is able to raise its debates, and where the discussion around children’s social care will take place.

The first debate will be about Baby Loss Awareness week, which aims to raise awareness around miscarriages and baby deaths in other contexts. Baby Loss Awareness week starts today and runs until 15th October.

The second debate is about children’s social care in England. The agenda paper tells us that these debates could run any time from around 4pm, until 10pm, however we will do our best to tweet the debate as it happens if we can. For anyone unable to watch the debate live, you will be able to read a transcript of the discussion in the Hansard, usually within 24 hours of the debate being held.

If you would like to watch the debate, you can do so by tuning in to Parliament TV.

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Family Court Experts and Medical Evidence – Have Your Say.

Sir Ernest Ryder, the Senior President of Tribunals, delivered a speech at The Expert Witness Institute, in which he invited the public to offer their views about what they think a functioning justice system should look like. The President also outlined pioneering projects focusing on big data, judicial training and evidence based practice.

Sir Ryder, who was tasked with modernising the family courts in 2011, opened his speech with some insights on a case called Re W, which involved allegations of non accidental injury, and which came to the media’s attention because the court wrongfully removed the child in question from his parents. The decision led to the mother having to choose between supporting her partner, who was innocent, and losing her child. She also terminated the pregnancy of her subsequent child after the allegations had been accepted by the court, knowing that her unborn child would have been removed at birth.

In that case, Sir Ryder, sitting in the Royal Courts of Justice observed:

“In the reading of complex medical materials these essential facts may become obscured. They should not be forgotten. This is not a case where there is ‘no smoke without fire’, this is a case where a family court and the expert who advised it got it wrong. The parents have no case to answer but their son spent 12 months of his very young life away from their care while the family courts acted to correct the error. K’s parents deserve an explanation as will K when he is older. It is not surprising in these circumstances that there are lessons to be learned.”

Sir Ryder made a formal apology to the parents during the hearing. Their son had been separated from them for the first two years of his life.

The case raised some very important questions about evidence, particularly medical evidence: how evidence is gathered, the absence or presence of consensus on the findings and best practice in relation to how the courts process and interpret that evidence.

Ryder’s speech pointed out these issues and also flagged up the inherent conflicts within medical and judicial processes: how we understand medical thresholds within the context of legal ones, and also how the courts combine medical data and fact together. Ryder mentioned that the multi faceted nature of hearings like the ones in Re W, framed within an adversarial system, can lead to some very serious, life changing errors.

On the adversarial nature of courts, Ryder said this:

“The traditional adversarial mechanisms we use are the well tested methods of the lawyer and judge. We derive principles from the interstitial conclusions of cases that identify or give rise to good practice. We create rules and practice directions to govern procedure so that there is consistency around the application of those principles and we permit those conclusions to be challenged, so that by the process of giving evidence in guideline cases and the process of appeal on points of principle, better practices can be identified, errors of practice can be condemned and replaced and new or alternative investigative techniques and processes of decision making can be approved, including our own. This is second nature to all of you but it is neither innovative nor swift and does not provide the litigant who has a point but as yet nothing to justify their funding with a means of getting your assistance.”

Ryder goes on to talk about the need for judges to receive specialist training when working within fields which require expert witnesses, and he mentioned a number of projects which are designed to invite best practice and improve judicial decision making in this area.

This takes Ryder over to the digital sector. He explained:

“I want to make the debate about the outcomes of justice more sophisticated and informed so that our practices and processes keep pace with scientific developments, the settled law is informed by the best of what you know and do with the ultimate consequence that we can use the data we collect to analyse what works.”

Ryder announced that his advisory council, the Administrative Justice Council,  had been developing an agenda of issues relating to good practice and that the council  now had four seminal projects it was working on. These projects will produce advice on best practice.

Ryder also confirmed that the council was working with the Legal Education Foundation and the Nuffield Foundation to develop several major projects. These projects include the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory which will work with the council to gather family research from across the world, and the newly created What Works centre for civil justice issues which will look into what works when it comes to access to justice, fair process and remedies available. The council will also be working with an HMCTS data lab which Ryder says will provide access to justice data for researchers.

The Tribunal President also mentioned what he said was pioneering work being done in data ethics and research methodologies being carried out by the Alan Turing Institute and the new Ada Lovelace Institute, and in his speech he urged lawyers to get involved in this area to help shape its use and effectiveness within the justice system.

And although he does not offer the public a place to reach out to him, or the Administrative Justice Council, Ryder’s final thought is an invitation to the public, to share their views on what they think a justice system should be. If you would like to share your thoughts, you can contact the council on 020 7329 5100, or email them at admin@justice.org.uk. For those of you who use Twitter, follow the council @JUSTICEhq or find them over on Facebook.



Legal Aid Certificates To Be Backdated

Welcome to another week.

The government has agreed to amend the law so that legal aid certificates can be backdated to the date when the application for legal aid was made.

The decision comes after a successful judicial review into the Legal Aid Agency’s refusal to backdate legal aid certificates. The current system means that lawyers often have to carry out work before the Legal Aid Agency has granted a certificate, in  order to secure clients’ access to justice.

The government will amend the Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations 2012 to allow legal aid certificates to be backdated to the date of application for legal aid.

legal aid




Government To Hold Debate On Children’s Social Care

Members of Parliament will hold a debate in the House of Commons on children’s social care next week. The topic was selected by the Backbench Business Committee, and the discussion on the day will be opened by Tim Loughton, MP.

Westminster Hall debates usually feature a motion, and take place in the Grand Committee Room. The events are free and open to the general public to watch, with entrance worked out on a first come, first served basis.

The motion for this debate hasn’t been made public yet, with Parliament’s website only offering the detail that this is going to be a ‘general’ debate on social care. Such a wide scope could make the conversation superficial at best given the limited amount of time that MPs will have to talk over issues, however the Committee should offer more information closer to the event.

The debate is scheduled to take place on Tuesday 9th October. We’ll update you with more details as soon as they’re available.



Office Of National Statistics Creates New Centres For Crime and Justice, Equality

The ONS has just announced that it will be opening five new centres each dedicated to a key policy area, with one of their centres to focus on data relating to crime and justice, and another looking at social mobility and equality issues.

The Office is the UK’s largest independent producer of official statistics and is recognised as the national statistical institute for the UK.

Announcing the new centres on their blog this afternoon, the ONS says it will be focusing on “filling evidence gaps and producing incisive analysis that illuminates the key policy challenges of the age.” The Office hopes the move will help to better inform the public and policy makers.

This development is interesting. Not only is the ONS looking to increase its output on issues that are current, it’s also hoping to pioneer data collection and analysis. The Office are going to do this using new sources of data, adopting the latest tools and approaches, and collaborating with other organisations and individuals. Their Twitter feed has also begun to feature product demos in the form of interactive data charts and maps.

The five new centres are:

  • Centre for Ageing and Demography – assessing the needs of an ageing population
  • Centre for Equalities and Inclusion – addressing questions about fairness and equality in society
  • Centre for Crime and Justice – improving the understanding of the nature of crime
  • Centre for Subnational Analysis – to help local areas design their own policies
  • Centre for International Migration – understanding migration’s significance in our population and economy

Perhaps the two centres of most interest to child welfare organisations will be the Centre for Inequalities and Inclusion and the Centre for Crime and Justice, with upcoming projects to include gathering data on sexual offences from across the criminal justice system to offer deeper insights into this area.

The ONS blog explains in more detail, what these two centres will provide:

“The Centre for Equalities and Inclusion will span a wide range of cross-cutting topic areas including gender and ethnic pay gaps, inter-generational fairness, social and financial exclusion, social mobility, economic inequalities, and inclusive growth. The Centre has also contributed to new EU Guidelines on Inequalities Data Collection and Analysis, to be published later this year.

The Centre for Crime and Justice will be publishing the Domestic Abuse Compendium later this year. Although this publication is not new (see last year’s here) it shows the partnership work the centre will be engaging in; working with a range of internal and external experts and drawing on both our own and others’ data to produce the best insights on some of the most pressing topics. Following this publication, the Centre will be looking to take a similar approach to sexual offences drawing together data from across the crime and criminal justice system to provide new insights in this area.”

ONS Stats




New Research Suggests Child Abuse Leaves Imprint On Victims’ DNA

A new study from Harvard University and the University of British Columbia suggests that people who experience abuse as children may carry imprints of that trauma inside their cells, leaving ‘molecular scars’ on its victims.

The study, which is entitled “Exposure to childhood abuse is associated with human sperm DNA methylation”, was published today in Translational Psychiatry. The research team assessed the DNA of 34 men, and found significant differences in methylation between victims and non victims.

Methylation is a biochemical process which acts in part like a dimmer switch on genes, affecting the extent to which a particular gene is activated or not. Epigenetics, or the turning on and off of genes, is a growing area of interest for scientists, who believe the process is influenced by external forces, such as a person’s environment or their life experiences.

The researchers decided to look for methylation in sperm cells, as they suspected that childhood stress could lead to long-term physical health problems not only in the immediate victims, but also in victims’ offspring, which had been demonstrated in previous experiments involving animals.

Though the study was not able to confirm whether these differences were responsible for long term health problems sometimes present in child abuse victims, or whether the methylation patterns could survive the process of fertilisation and pass down to a person’s children, the findings are being viewed as a potential source of evidence for family and criminal courts when trying to establish allegations of child abuse.

One of the senior authors of the study, Michael Kobor, who is a medical genetics professor at the University of British Columbia explains the correlation between methylation and detecting child abuse:

“Methylation is starting to be viewed as a potentially useful tool in criminal investigations – for example, by providing investigators with an approximate age of a person who left behind a sample of their DNA… So it’s conceivable that the correlations we found between methylation and child abuse might provide a percentage probability that abuse had occurred.”




Child Deaths Reveal Worrying Levels Of Inaction Across The UK

The latest figures from the Department of Education reveal that the number of reviews into child deaths have fallen a little since last year, and the number of reviews completed within 12 months of a child’s death has increased. The number of deaths attributed to non accidental injuries, child and abuse and neglect was 47, with the largest number of deaths (2,931) due to medical reasons.

The most controversial aspect of these figures lies within the ‘modifiable factors’ indicator. This refers to deaths which could have been prevented and often come about as a result of actions not taken and things that could have been done to prevent those deaths, but weren’t. A working definition of modifiable factors are those, where, if actions could be taken through national or local interventions, the risk of future child deaths could be reduced.

While deaths related to medical conditions featured the highest number of child deaths, the modifiable factors within those deaths were amongst the lowest (20%). However, when we look at the number of deaths caused by abuse or injury, which features the smallest number of deaths, the modifiable factors indicator for this group is the second largest after unexplained deaths. We would expect a great deal of uncertainty around unexplained deaths, but we would not expect such ambiguity in cases where children die of conditions which have been identified. This then, make the modifiable factors indicator within child abuse and neglect deaths deeply worrying, and could suggest that councils are failing children at the most critical level.

Many thanks to Nicky for sharing these stats with us.




Family Court Reform Event Opens Its Doors To The Public.

Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service is holding an open event in London, on 29th October, to update family lawyers and service users about its £1billion reformation programme. Those who cannot attend will be able to watch the event through a live stream.

The event is one of several seminars aimed at informing the public and legal professionals about reforms being implemented across civil and criminal courts. The seminars come amid claims from the National Audit Office that HMCTS has failed to deliver on reforms due within the first phase of improvements.

The NAO’s report highlighted several concerns, including the following:

  • HMCTS had improved its approach, but overall it was behind where it expected to be and significant risks remained
  • HMCTS had made less progress overall than expected at this stage
  • Expected costs have increased and planned benefits have decreased
  • There are gaps in the funding for reforms in later years
  • HMCTS still needs to develop how the new services will work in practice
  • Failure to sustain commitment from all delivery organisations will significantly
    reduce the likelihood of success and the benefits achieved
  • Delays in introducing primary legislation create a significant degree of uncertainty
  • Delivering change on this scale at pace means that HMCTS risks making
    decisions before it understands the system-wide consequences
  • The benefits claimed so far by HMCTS exceed expectations but risk putting pressure on its ability to maintain services

You can read HMCTS’ response to the concerns here.  

The family courts seminar on the 29th October is a face to face event, which will showcase some of the services which are already up and running, and which HMCTS claims is making a difference to court users. The event will also offer a look at services which are still in production but due to be released over the next few months.

The seminar will give attendees and online audiences an overview of the following areas:

  • Digital divorce
  • Digital financial remedy solutions
  • Plans for public law care and supervision

The event organisers are now inviting people to register their interest in the conference, but explain that booking a place does not automatically guarantee confirmation of attendance, as they will be prioritising seats for legal professionals and professional court users. After reviewing applications, the organisers will notify successful applicants via email and provide them with a ticket.

Attendees and internet viewers will be able to ask questions during the seminar using online software called Slido, however questions can be sent in beforehand to changesomethingthatmatters@justice.gov.uk, and should include your name, area of practice and organisation along with your question.

The seminar team will also be recording the live stream and taking photos at the event, and so for those attending there is the option at the bottom of the event page to ask that you are not included in their media footage. Your contact details will also be used to send you further updates about the programme, which you can also decline if you wish.

The event will be held at the University of Westminster, on Monday 29th October, from 5.30-7pm. You can request a seat, or live stream access, using their Eventbrite page.



Report Finds Social Workers Discriminate Against Disabled Parents.

New research from the Tilda Goldberg Centre for Social Work and Social Care at the University of Bedfordshire, has found that social services often assume having a disability is a child protection risk. The research also confirms that social services often monitor families rather than provide meaningful support that would keep families together and avoid a crisis later on.

In an interview with the BBC, one parent with a condition that limits her mobility and strength explained how she chose to hide her pregnancy from social services, fearing they would refer her to the borough’s child protection team and then take her baby away from her, once she was born. The mother, who already had a care plan in place with adult social services for her disability, was also aware that councils try to refer cases away from their departments in order to avoid having to pay for further assistance, making a referral to a child protection team more likely.

The mother told the BBC:

“The fear you carry with you…cannot be understated.”

“Every disabled person I spoke to, when I was pregnant, had a concern.

“There is always some implication because you have an impairment, that you may not be a fantastically good parent.”

She went on to say:

“For the first 10 to 12 months while Sally wasn’t mobile, my existing day-care package and support was enough.”

“Once she moved on from milk and was mobile, it wasn’t.”

One of the things the mother needed help with was making her baby’s food.

“It seems like such a little thing to make your child something to eat, but if you can’t stand for long, and your hands don’t work very well, it can be one of the most distressing things.”

“It was as if because I couldn’t provide that, I wasn’t competent as a mother.”

In the end the mother felt she had no choice but to call for help:

“When that contact came back, I remember ringing my health visitor and just sobbing hysterically. It was devastating.”

“I don’t think that any parent sees being transferred to children’s services as a positive thing.”

The mother goes on to tell the BBC that this kind of prejudice is reserved only for disabled people, however this is not the case. Legal Action for Women have been highlighting discrimination against single, poor parents for some time, and we know that parents home schooling their children have also been targeted by social services across the country.

Unlike most cases, the social worker the mother was allocated agreed her need was because of her disability, not her ability as a mother, and promised to fight her manager’s intention to pass her on to children’ services. The issue of how parenting capacity is determined has begun to be viewed as controversial, with emerging research in America suggesting that this kind of assessment is in fact outdated and unhelpful.

Crucially, the social worker in this instance successfully argued that the service user’s needs as a mother should be met by adult social services.

This argument is hugely important, as it highlights a different way of thinking which allows for both mother and child to be cared for. 

The mother makes the following observations about her daughter and the care they now both receive:

“She’s the greatest joy of my life – she’s wonderful, happy and loved… And having social care support in her life means she is loved by lots of adults. The care staff are like our extended family.”

And that’s how it’s done.

(We’ve asked the Centre whether they would mind sharing the research with us, as we can’t seem to find it on their website, and will let you know when they reply).

Many thanks to Dana for alerting us to this development.