The Government has announced a major shake-up of the family court welfare service, a move widely welcomed by family lawyers concerned at the low profile the service has enjoyed under the supervision of the Probation Service.
Geoff Hoon, Parliamentary Secretary at the Lord Chancellor's Department, set out the government's plans for the service in his keynote speech to the Solicitors Family Law Association (SFLA) annual conference held in Blackpool at the end of February.
An inter-departmental working party is to look into taking responsibility for supervising family court welfare officers who assess the welfare of children involved in family disputes away from the Probation Service and creating an integrated service with other providers of family welfare work.
The new division is likely to be put under the wing of the Lord Chancellor's Department.
Hoon said: 'People are increasingly questioning the position of the Family Court Welfare Service as part of the Probation Service, with its increasing emphasis on correctional rather than social work functions.
'In a single service with two such distinct functions there are inevitably conflicting resource pressures and priorities.'
Following the Children Act 1989, welfare officers' reports have become extremely influential in the court's decision-making on the issues of residence and contact. Hoon acknowledged that the judiciary was 'heavily dependent' on them.
One leading family lawyer estimates that judges follow the recommendations of the welfare report in 95 per cent of cases. The quality of welfare reports is therefore crucial.
David Salter, chair of the SFLA and head of family law at Addleshaw Booth & Co, said there had been disquiet for some time among SFLA members about having family court welfare work under Probation Service control.
Salter also attacked the Probation Service's policy of regularly moving staff in and out of the Family Court Welfare Service.
Salter added: 'This type of specialist, sensitive work needs officers with proper training and experience.'
At present less than 10 per cent of the Probation Service's budget is spent on Family Court welfare work. But Hoon denied that the new plans were a cost-cutting exercise.