It is obvious that any court proceedings relating to the welfare of children should be dealt with as quickly as possible.
This is recognised by the very first section of the Children Act, which states that: “In any proceedings in which any question with respect to the upbringing of a child arises, the court shall have regard to the general principle that any delay in determining the question is likely to prejudice the welfare of the child.”
And the requirement that the case be dealt with speedily must surely be most important in care proceedings, where the entire future of the child is in the balance: whether or not they should be removed from the care of their parents.
26 week care proceedings limit
The particular need to resolve care proceedings quickly was acknowledged by parliament in 2014, when it introduced a new rule requiring the court dealing with care proceedings to draw up a timetable with a view to disposing of an application without delay and, in any event, within 26 weeks.
Sadly, the courts have not been able to keep to the 26-week limit, with the average time that cases were taking increasing over the last few years.
By the first quarter of last year cases were taking an average of 49 weeks, up 6 weeks from the same quarter in 2021, and the highest average since 2012.
And only 17% of the cases were completed within the 26-week time limit, down 5 percentage points from the same period in 2021, and the lowest recorded since 2012.
These shocking figures have led the President of the Family Division to take action.
Why are care cases taking so long?
But before we look at what the President is doing, we need to consider exactly why care cases are taking so long.
There are several reasons behind the delays.
Firstly, from about 2016 there was an unexpected and sustained 25% rise in the volume of care applications, putting enormous pressure upon the family courts.
And that pressure was of course greatly exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused the closure of courts and added hugely to backlogs.
But the President sees a further factor at play: the normalisation of delay. It is now some six or seven years since the courts have been able to meet the 26-week deadline, he says, and there is no current expectation of doing so.
Resetting the culture within the Family Court
In the light of all of this the President has said that it is now clear that there is a need for a radical resetting of the culture within the Family Court so that the system once again aims to meet the requirement of completing care cases within 26 weeks.
Accordingly, the President is embarking on a campaign to “exhort, require and expect” every single professional, judge, magistrate or staff member in the system to get back to operating within the 26-week limit, without exception.
The President aims for the necessary change in working practices to ‘go live’ in all local authorities and courts throughout England and Wales on Monday 16 January 2023.
Changes include reducing the number of hearings, only instructing experts where necessary, and where required the court holding ‘compliance’ hearings to deal with any failure by a party to meet dates.
“What is required”, says the President, “is compliance with a statutory obligation that has been imposed for the benefit of children. In that context, lack of resources and staffing must not prevent the changes that must now occur.”
He does, however, acknowledge that what is proposed will be without difficulties but, he says, doing nothing is not an option – currently the system is spiralling in the wrong direction.
Hopefully, the campaign will be successful, for the sake not only of the children, but also of the parents involved.