Originally published in The Guardian
Peter Wandle’s son was removed at birth by social services. The family drug and alcohol court (FDAC) presented the new father with a stark choice: abandon his drug-taking and drinking or lose parental rights. Five years on, Wandle takes his young son to school every day.
Such specialist courts – like those focusing on drug or domestic violence offences – lead to lower reoffending rates and improved support for those going through the justice system, according to a recent study of judicial performance.
More direct communication with defendants before hearings and in the courtroom also enhances perceptions of procedural fairness and results in better outcomes, the report by the Centre for Justice Innovation and the Criminal Justice Alliance argues. According to the report, To Be Fair: Procedural Fairness in Courts, research shows that fair and clear interactions between the judges and families means that when decisions go against parents, they feel they have understood the reasons for the decision and appeals are kept to a minimum. The report is being presented this week at a conference, Better Courts that brings together practitioners and experts to discuss new ideas in the UK court system.
The call for a more considered delivery of justice, however, comes at a time when Ministry of Justice (MoJ) budgets are being cut and legal aid withdrawn from many areas of civil law.
Wandle’s story is emblematic of the success of the FDAC in central London, which was launched in 2008 as a way of dealing with civil care proceedings involving parents who misuse substances, causing harm to their children.
Based on a US model, the court is designed to stop parents abusing alcohol and drugs and keep families together. The head of the high court’s family division, Sir James Munby, has praised the FDAC as a “vital component” of family justice. Supporters defend its informal proceedings on the grounds that long-term, it saves taxpayer’s money by keeping families together. There are FDACs in Milton Keynes, Gloucester and Buckinghamshire, with more planned. While these specialist family courts are thriving, criminal drugs and alcohol courts have faced cutbacks.
Wandle (not his real name) is appreciative of his time before the FDAC and now volunteers to help others going through the court. “I had a boy with someone who had previous experience of social services,” he explains. “When my son was born he was removed from our care. We were referred to the court. It gave us a plan and we had to stick to it. I knew what was going to happen. I knew what was in front of me. I had drug and alcohol problems. I had been using them for 20 years.”
He says he parted early on from his partner, who didn’t keep up with the court’s requirements. “A lot of time was given to me and I received a lot of support [from the court],” Wandle adds. “Every–thing was laid out; it was very clear. The court was once a month and regular. Sometimes it was just going in for five minutes, building up a relationship with the judge. It was the same judge throughout. Having the opportunity to speak to the judge felt odd at first, but after a little time I felt that he cared about what was happening and wanted to know what was going on. It was good to have the opportunity to speak up. After 16 months my son was put back into my care. He’s just over five now and in full-time school.”
Since Wandle went into treatment, he says he has been drug and alcohol free and he has gone back to the court recently to help others. “It’s changed a bit. It’s more rushed now. They don’t have as much time to work with people as they used to,” he says. “I had legal representation and legal aid; legal aid has been cut since my time.”
Phil Bowen, a former senior civil servant at the MoJ and director of the Centre for Justice Innovation, will tell the Better Courts conference this week that improving procedural fairness leads to better outcomes. “If people say they have been treated as a human being, that means they are more likely to obey court orders. This research shows that small practical steps to improve communication … can make a big difference – judges can change how they speak to victims; simple text messages to tell people when to appear and what to expect can increase court appearances. These sorts of steps are needed to make sure that justice is as accessible, transparent and as fair as possible.”
Bowen says there is a misheld perception that special courts judges tend to “go native”. “Specialist courts require more sessions because you bring people back to review regularly. Judges say it takes up too much time. It means they can’t knock off at 3pm. We need a different view.”
Judge Nicholas Crichton, founder of the FDAC, backs the report. “In the FDAC, we have seen some parents demonstrate a remarkable capacity to change in response to our more constructive, empathetic approach. Harnessing the fairness and authority of the court has shown that it is possible to break the cycle of drug and alcohol misuse,” he says.
Judge John Samuels, chairman of the Criminal Justice Alliance, adds: “Sentencers, whether full-time judges or lay magistrates, frequently feel powerless to address the problems faced by those appearing in their courts with multiple social, health and addiction problems. While they may be defendants today, the same individuals were probably victims yesterday; or will be tomorrow.