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The slow pace of family justice

By Sanchia Berg
Today programme

Young male child sitting alone on stairs of his home
The average care proceedings case takes over a year

A review of the family justice system describes delay in cases involving vulnerable children as "shocking".

The average care proceedings case, writes David Norgrove in his report, currently lasts more than 60 weeks.

These court hearings decide whether children should be taken into care, adopted, or placed back with their family. Many of the children involved are very young, and the long delays can have a long term effect.

Some 20,000 children are currently waiting for decisions about their future - so without action, delays are likely to lengthen.

The review sets out ways to speed up the process, notably a six-month deadline for care proceedings. This is causing concern in some courts - one judge told me she didn't know how it could be done.

Long wait

Last month I sat in on a typical case in the Family Courts in central London. Several young children, all under four years old at the time, had been removed from their mother's care and placed with foster parents. Two had serious injuries, which did not appear to be accidental - a fractured skull and a fractured jaw - dating back to the summer of 2010.


But in October 2011, 15 months on, the children were still with their foster parents, though would within weeks move to a permanent home.

However, for the youngest especially - just nine months old when he was taken from his mother - this second move would, experts said, undoubtedly be very difficult. He had formed a close bond with his foster mother.

The children were not moving on in the care system, or being adopted - they were going to live with their respective fathers. So why had the case taken so long?

First, the judge had held a fact-finding hearing. For this, doctors and social workers, experts in court parlance, had assessed and interviewed the children and their carers, considered the injuries and what could have caused them.

Experts used by the courts are very busy and the judge had a packed schedule, so the hearing only took place six months after the children had been removed.

We should be able trying to limit the amount of pain that these children suffer
Penny Cushing, District Judge

At the hearing, the court found the injuries were not deliberate. The local authority recommended therefore the children could be returned to their mother, subject to further reports. Experts and social workers observed and assessed her - and other family members who might be able to look after the children.

The next hearing took place in July, by which time the children had been in foster care for 12 months. All this time they had had very frequent contact with their mother, and seen their grandparents often too.

But the reports on the mother were not positive. Those on the children's fathers were more promising. Now the plan was to place the children with them. But the judge wanted more reviews and assessment, to be confident this would work.

So three more months passed, in which the children had less contact with their mother, more with their fathers. There was another hearing to report - and the court approved the move, although no final placement order has yet been made, as the court will continue to review how the children are doing.

'Gold standard'

It is this detailed scrutiny of care plans and forward planning which David Norgrove singles out as a major cause of delay.

Statue of the Scales of Justice on the rooftop of the Old Bailey building
Some Family Court judges have reacted angrily to the proposals

It is work that should often be done by local authorities not courts, he argues, and that the court should substantially reduce its scrutiny of the care plan for children. The court should not consider in detail, for instance, how much contact a child in care will have with its natural family.

Speaking to several family court judges about the recommendations, all were concerned - some angry - about the idea of curtailing their role. All could cite cases where the local authority had not handled issues properly and they had to intervene. All were concerned about delay - but did not think this was the way to deal with it.

Penny Cushing, a district judge in the main family court in London, described the current system as the "gold standard" for protecting the best interests of vulnerable children.

David Norgrove has acknowledged that many judges will be reluctant to give up detailed scrutiny of the local authority involved in a case. He hopes that reforms to social work - proposed by Professor Eileen Munro - will give judges more confidence.

But while those reforms have been adopted by the government, they have yet to take effect. Professor Munro herself believes it would be premature for judges to step back before social workers have changed their practice.

She is concerned that the public would be "anxious" at the idea of giving social workers more power without the court scrutiny, and that it would undermine confidence in these public services.

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