Thu 1 Jul 2004

11:37am (UK)
New Family Justice Panel Launched

By David Barrett, Legal Affairs Correspondent, PA News

A new Government body was launched today to improve the family justice system, which deals with issues such as child custody, divorce and domestic violence.

The Family Justice Council will stage its first meeting by the end of this month and will be chaired by top judge Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss.

However, she was unable to say whether the new panel would prioritise child contact issues which have sparked high-profile public campaigns by fathers’ groups, including the House of Commons flour bomb attack on the Prime Minister on May 19.

Asked if the council would consider child contact arrangements, Dame Elizabeth said: “I don’t know to what extent it will be necessary for the Family Justice Council to deal with that specific issue.”

She pointed out that the Department for Constitutional Affairs intends to publish a Green Paper on enforcement of contact orders and resolution of relationship breakdowns.

Family Justice Minister Lord Filkin confirmed that he hoped the paper would be issued before Parliament’s summer recess begins on July 22.

Asked if the paper would propose making it compulsory for parents to attend mediation sessions in a bid to avoid going to court over custody of their children, the minister said: “The expectation would be that parents went to such a resolution mechanism.

“We will make it pretty clear that we want parents to go there.”

The new council will meet every three months and is made up of 19 judges, lawyers and other professionals, plus academics and court users.

There will also be 10 members from Government departments.

President of the Family Division of the High Court Dame Elizabeth said: “This new council should help some of the most vulnerable members of society in troubled times.”

Lord Filkin added: “It is bringing together into one authoritative forum all of the key stakeholders in a position to give robust and strong views, advice and opinions about what needs to be changed and what needs to be moved forward to make the family justice service work well.”

A farmer and entrepreneur who admitted throwing three flour– filled condoms at Tony Blair in the House of Commons was fined £600 in May.

Guy Harrison, 36, of Sopers Farm, Ashurst, West Sussex, was also ordered to pay costs of £55 after pleading guilty to a public order offence at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court in central London.

Mr Harrison, a member of pressure group Fathers 4 Justice, was seeking equal rights of access to children for fathers.