A new pilot scheme has been providing free DNA tests to parents at family courts.
The free DNA tests are being offered as part of a government initiative, the Troubled Families Unit, which aims to ensure that children in particularly troubled families have the chance of a better life while reducing the cost to the taxpayer. One way that the government aims to achieve this is to help families to resolve their disputes before they reach court.
Government data collected in October and November 2011 estimated that £9 billion is spent annually on troubled families – an average of £75,000 per family each year. Of this, an estimated £8 billion is spent reacting to the problems these families have and cause with just £1 billion being spent on helping families to solve and prevent problems in the longer term.
Since the extensive cuts to legal aid the family courts have been inundated with litigants in person which is causing an increase in cost to the taxpayer, as well as delays and inefficiencies in the system. Many “troubled” families return many times to the courts with a variety of problems, which can be costly and time consuming. It is hoped that the pilot scheme being tested in Taunton and Bristol will help to develop new ways to reduce inefficiency and waste in the family courts.
The new measures were recently discussed at a Westminster Legal Policy Forum debate in London. The justice minister, Simon Hughes, revealed that he intends to expand the government’s pilot scheme, increasing the workload from the current 120,000 families to assist over 400,000 families.
In addition to the free DNA tests designed to speed up paternity conflicts, the justice minister also discussed providing free hair substance tests which are already used by the family courts to determine if a parent or guardian has been misusing drugs or alcohol.
The purpose of these measures is to provide clear answers to common allegations and avoid hours of costly legal argument and delay. The project is currently being run by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) and funded by the Ministry of Justice.
Resolving family matters “without court proceedings”
Addressing the Westminster conference, the justice minister Simon Hughes, explained: “It’s better in my view that people don’t have to go to court at all. We should move to a situation where family matters are resolved without court proceedings. That might mean there’s less work for lawyers. I don’t think that the state should be there to justify work for lawyers.”
“It’s scandalous and a tragedy that we are in the position where … there are people who are coming back to the family courts up to 14 times to be the subject of care proceedings.”
Such families needed more neonatal training and support, he said. Those who repeatedly appeared in the family courts would be among those referred to the government’s Troubled Families Unit in future.
“A lot of the services we need are not court services but advice for people about what rights they have. My vision of the courts is that they [also become] family advice centres so that people can be pointed in the right direction.”
In cases involving children over the age 10, Hughes said, “the children need to be heard; they should be able to talk to the court to say what they want – so that their issues and requirements are seen to come first.”