Spotlight on: Norfolk’s Family Court Support Service (FCSS)
Judi Lincoln, Advice & Volunteer Manager at the Norfolk Community Law Service tells us about their Family Court Support Service (FCSS) for private law, child contact matters.
Norfolk Community Law Service (NCLS) exists to identify gaps in the provision of free legal advice in Norfolk and to work with partner agencies to develop services to try to meet those gaps. We provide a range of free legal advice services including employment, family, domestic abuse, debt, welfare benefits (including representation at Tribunal), immigration & discrimination. NCLS is the lead agency for the Norfolk Community Advice Network (NCAN) which has been working on increasing the use of the electronic client referral system and directory to improve the client journey and access to advice, opening up new client pathways. With NCAN, NCLS is also developing a common framework for measuring health outcomes in order to make the case for health funding of social welfare advice.
Since 2013, NCLS with the support of the Norwich Court, have been running the Family Court Support Service (FCSS) for private law, child contact matters. In January 2016 we started a Family Court Desk Service to offer support for clients who turn up at the Norwich Family courts without a representative.
The service exists to assist Litigants in Person (LiPs) who are unable to obtain representation because of the cuts to legal aid. Initially, the service was restricted to Child Arrangement Orders but due to demand we also assist in Special Guardianship cases. We now have a part-time Co-ordinator in place allowing us to provide the service two days a week.
We ideally try to assist clients before they get to their first hearing. Clients are normally signposted or referred to us by advice agencies (e.g. Citizens Advice, Leeway Domestic Abuse Charity) or they come to us from our free legal advice Family service. We always encourage clients to attend a free family legal advice session (FLA) where they receive initial advice from a solicitor before making an application to the Court or attending a First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA). Once they have received legal advice, we can assist them to act on that advice.
We aim to support clients from the beginning to the end of the Court process which involves a significant amount of volunteer and staff time. After initial conflict checks, we take the time to understand the client’s journey and their current situation. Where clients are first seen at the FLA sessions, we help them to complete the correct Court applications which they
can then take back to an FLA session to have them checked by a solicitor if there is time. We will assist clients in the preparation of statements and help them to navigate the court process ideally to the Final hearing as well as Enforcement applications.
Between July 2013 and July 2016 we have been able to support a total of 88 clients at multiple hearings. We now get about 5 new requests for help each week.
Mr. and Mrs. D have 3 children. Mr. D is arguing that the children want to live with him but Mrs. D wants them to continue to live with her. She believes that they don’t really want to live with their father and that they are too young to make this decision. The children currently have contact with Mr. D every weeknight and every Saturday. Both parties have
managed to sort contact out informally since their separation and have always managed to communicate well.
Mrs. D believes that the children are saying different things to each of them which led to Mr. D believing the children want to live with him. The CAFCASS officer felt there were no safeguarding issues. Her concern was the emotional impact of these proceedings on the children who she felt are too young to have to make a choice between parents. She suspects the children tell both parties what they want to hear. She suggested a Section 7 report to ascertain the children’s wishes and feelings although she was concerned as to the impact of the report on the children.
The FCSS Supporter asked if both parties had attempted mediation. Mrs. D said she had not received an invitation for mediation. The FCSS Supporter suggested to CAFCASS that mediation might be an alternative as both parties were happy to attend and they have communicated well with each other since the separation. CAFCASS welcomed this suggestion as they felt mediation would be in the best interests of the child and they subsequently recommended mediation to the Bench who agreed.
This case is an example of where the intervention of the FCSS Supporter led to the satisfactory no order principle.
You can find more information at www.ncls.co.uk and/or contact Judi Lincoln, Advice & Volunteer Manager.