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Lady Hale gives lecture on 30 years of the Children Act 1989

Reforming childcare law

19 November 2019
Lady Hale gives lecture on 30 years of the Children Act 1989

For the Law Commission’s Scarman Lecture this year, the President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, reflected on reforming childcare law 30 years after the Children Act was passed. Lady Hale recalled that when she became a Law Commissioner in 1984, she identified the need to prioritise the reform of childcare law for numerous reasons, including the fact that different laws were applied in different courts.

Another problem with the system was the level of control local authorities had over children in care (and their parents), whether through court proceedings or voluntarily, which meant that local authorities could assume parental rights over children to the point of denying all contact with their parents, with no recourse for parents to challenge this. In general, parents’ rights were limited, and extended family often disregarded as potential caregivers. A further concern was that the system did not distinguish between children taken into care because of ‘delinquent’ behaviour and those removed from their parents because of abuse concerns.

Lady Hale considered the five main achievements of the Children Act, which aimed to make ‘a single coherent statutory scheme, with the revolutionary idea that all courts could be applying the same law, the same principles and the same procedures.’ The focus was to reform, codify and simplify the fundamental law to end the ‘chaos and injustice of different law in different courts in different proceedings.’ The intention was to create a new family justice system that worked in partnership with families instead of in opposition to them. This involved introducing consistent procedures across courts and better interdisciplinary co-operation, as well as unifying children’s social services so that laws relating to disabled children and those needing protection from harm would consider them as children in need of help. The Act clarified boundaries between the roles of the courts and social services, and, controversially, separated the family and youth justice systems. 

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