This blog is based on a conversation between Her Honour Judge Gaynor Lloyd (Designated Family Judge for North Wales), His Honour Judge Chris Simmonds (Designated Family Judge for Dorset) and Jude Eyre (Associate Director, Nuffield Family Justice Observatory). We are grateful to them for allowing us to write this.
Over the past year, family courts in Dorset and North Wales have been trialling a ‘problem-solving’ approach to private law proceedings known as the Pathfinder Model. The project puts a particular focus on improving the court’s response to those who have been affected by domestic abuse and aims to centre the voice of the child in proceedings.
A report released this week by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner has outlined a wide range of recommendations to improve the safety of survivors and children in the Family Court. One of these recommendations is that the Pathfinder model should be resourced appropriately as part of wider efforts to roll it out nationally.
As the Pathfinder model is currently in a pilot stage in just two areas in England and Wales, it’s important to explain the key distinctions between this model and usual practice in the family courts.
In the standard process that exists across most family courts in England, CAFCASS or CAFCASS Cymru in Wales undertake initial safeguarding enquiries and then send a safeguarding letter to the court within 3-4 weeks of receiving the case.
This will be followed by a First Hearing and Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA) but at that point the information available is quite limited and if further information is needed the Court will adjourn to allow more time to gather that information.
Parties being present in court is an essential part of this process.
They have to build in the delay that it takes to get the information they need.
The Pathfinder approach is quite different – a key focus of the model is on getting information as early as possible in the process to make informed decisions.
CAFCASS or CAFCASS Cymru, or Children’s services in situation where the families is already involved them, undertake a Child Impact Assessment. This is a much more in-depth information gathering exercise and includes engaging with the parents and other agencies where appropriate (such as police, the local authority or domestic abuse agencies).
Importantly there is also a presumption that children will have the opportunity to be seen and heard at this stage. All this information is gathered together in a 6-week period and then the court conducts a further “gatekeeping” in week 7 – which means it uses that information to decide what needs to happen next for that family in terms of Court hearings.
Where appropriate, families are supported to engage in out of court dispute resolutions which can avoid the need for parties to have to come to court at all. If as part of the Child Impact enquiries the parties are supported to reach an agreement this this can be reflected in order, again without the need for them to attend.
Where families cant reach agreement or the Child Impact Report identifies safety issues which require further input from the Court, the case is given a court date – but unlike in standard private law proceedings, the type of Court hearing the families first attend can be different depending on the needs identified in the Child Impact Report. Also, where the Child Impact Report identifies further information is still needed, this can be ordered in appropriate cases without the need for families to come court.
The model focuses on working with families and less adversarial language used in the court process to support a more problem-solving approach.
A core feature of the model is the involvement of children from the very beginning of proceedings so that in most cases the child is given the opportunity to participate in proceedings in the way they want to.
This child-centric approach is at the core of the Commissioner’s report. The report makes a recommendation that the Government work with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s Office to strengthen the voice of the child when domestic abuse is raised in the Family Court.
The model is built around multi-agency working – the court is an active partner with local domestic abuse organisations, mediation services, cafcass and the local authority. There is a focus on gathering information from the people in the best place to help the court understand the needs of the child and their family.
In situations where there are concerns about domestic abuse, families are referred to specialist domestic abuse agencies for a risk assessment and ongoing support. Domestic abuse service can also provide feedback on any work a child might be engaging with, which the Judges find is a great way to hear their true wishes and feelings.
The pathfinder model allows the court to break down barriers and better integrate with services. One of the many benefits of this is that if any welfare issues are identified, the court is easily able to signpost or refer into the services of their partners. This multi-agency approach has also meant that IDVAs – specialist independent advocates – are easily able to come into the courtroom to support the welfare of vulnerable survivors as they go through proceedings, a change brought in 2023 via Practice Direction 27C of the Family Procedure Rules.
So far in the pilot, anecdotal evidence and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
Survivors and perpetrators have fed back that the process is much less brutal and unkind than the standard adversarial family law proceedings.
This has also been helped by the process being much quicker – the early information gathering allows them to collect information on designated days rather than spreading it out.
And because they are identifying vulnerability much earlier, they are therefore holding fewer Fact-Finding Hearings (these are typically held when one party makes a domestic abuse allegation that the other denies, and the Judge needs to work out what is true).
This has freed up judicial resource, allowing the courts to spend time working through their case backlogs.
The Commissioner has long been interested in the model and has heard consistently positive feedback about the pilot from litigants, court staff and the judiciary.
The key challenge has been resource. When this becomes an issue, then the Pathfinder model struggles to do what it’s supposed to do, because it requires the staff to hold each stage together and keep things moving. However, although resource issues caused some initial teething issues, now that the proper court staffing and judicial resource is in place, the process has been hugely beneficial.
The Pathfinder pilot is currently under evaluation and isn’t yet able to be adopted by other areas. However, there is wide interest in the model, notwithstanding the Commissioner’s recommendation that the Pathfinder Court be rolled out nationally.
This model has the potential to completely transform the way the Family Court deals with domestic abuse, creating a much less adversarial experience for adult and child survivors.
And whilst we are galvanised by the positive feedback about the Pathfinder Court, we are keen to see them rolled out across England and Wales with appropriate resource allocated. This is reflective of their capacity to effectively engage with domestic abuse owing to expertise, abuse-informed methods and a child centric approach to cases.
You can watch the full conversation between Judge Lloyd, Judge Simmonds and Jude Eyre via the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory website here.