A ground-breaking legal challenge to safeguard children’s rights in
family court proceedings has been rejected by the High Court.
The case was brought against the Children and Family Court Advisory
Support Services (Cafcass) after children from Kent were taken into
care following a court hearing without guardians being appointed
despite their presence being requested.
Sarah Harman, representing the children, said Cafcass was obliged
to provide guardians to represent children immediately after the
court requested their appointment. They said the case highlighted a
reduction in services by Cafcass caused by lack of resources.
But Mr Justice Charles found that Cafcass had no legal obligation
to “immediately make available” a children’s guardian when asked to
do so by a judge, only “as soon as possible”.
The ruling follows work carried out by an influential government
advisory committee to tackle delays in care proceedings, which it
says are hindering the government’s drive to speed up the fostering
The Lord Chancellor’s Department advisory committee on judicial
case management in Children Act cases has developed a set of good
practice guidelines which it hopes will reduce the time proceedings
take by a third.
The protocol will set a time frame for every element of care
proceedings, and aim to shorten the process from a year to a
maximum 40 weeks. If given the go-ahead, the protocol could be in
place by April.
At Essex Council, one of the worst affected in the country, the 28
care proceedings it dealt with between April and September last
year took on average 403 days to complete. But this rose to 468
days for the 13 cases completed in October and November.
When the Children Act 1989 was first implemented, it was envisaged
that care proceedings would be completed within three months.
“Cases have become more complicated since then, but 52 weeks is
unacceptable and the process needs to be faster,” said Sally Field,
advisory committee member and head of family policy at the
children’s division at the Lord Chancellor’s Department.
Field said lack of effective case management was the main problem
with the current process, but the shortage of social workers,
children’s guardians, legal experts and court time were making it