Councils’ role in case preparation, core assessments and communication with families has been criticised in the report of the review of child care proceedings. By Mithran Samuel.
Last week’s report of the government’s child care proceedings review was a challenging read for councils.
The review was intended to examine the rising number of care cases, delays in processing them and the burgeoning legal aid bill.
Although there were issues for the judiciary and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service to consider, the role of councils in these interrelated problems was the report’s strongest theme.
It said the quality of care applications was variable. Research informing the review found core assessments of children and families were incomplete in one-third of cases.
This resulted in many delays, due to the need for courts to commission expert evidence and for greater input from Cafcass guardians.
The report called for statutory guidance for councils on case preparation, encompassing existing non-statutory guidance and judicial practice directions, with compliance checked at a pre-court meeting.
The report also said councils could do more to make families understand the reasons behind applications and the process, claiming this would improve outcomes for the child and reduce conflict.
It recommended councils prepare a summary document for the family, outlining in simple terms the nature of their concerns and the potential outcomes of the case.
Andrew Webb, co-chair of the Association of Directors of Social Services children and families committee, admits practice is variable and that quality “could be improved in some areas”. But he questions some of the report’s charges.
He says that what the court defines as incomplete preparation often reflects a difference of opinion between councils and other parties.
He says: “A guardian or family solicitor may introduce a different proposal to that thought best by the council. If that hasn’t been worked through and discounted [by the council] it appears as incompleteness. But it’s just a difference of opinion.”
The problem of families not understanding councils’ concerns is not necessarily the authorities’ fault, he adds, but a reflection of families’ background, the problems they face and the complexity of the process.
“The parents and families are not always in the best place to understand what’s going on and the language of law is complicated.”
Webb is sceptical about some of the recommendations, saying the need for councils to prepare a summary will be an added burden to many existing requirements.
But this view is not shared by Dr Julia Brophy, senior research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Family Law and Policy, Oxford University, who conducted research for the review.
She says: “For councils that get to court with a well-prepared application, simply drawing it together in a simple document for parents won’t require much work.”
She is more confident than Webb about the prospect of fostering understanding among parents.
However, she says councils are not always to blame for gaps in applications. For instance, medical assessments on children may not have been completed because of a lack of consent from parents, which can only be overturned by the courts.
The Department for Constitutional Affairs, which commissioned the inquiry, and the Department for Education and Skills are now preparing an implementation plan for the review.
- Legal aid costs for care and supervision cases increased by 102 per cent to 180m from 1999-2000 to 2004-5.
- On average, care applications cost 25,000: 60 per cent is paid by legal aid, 25 per cent by councils, 10 per cent by Cafcass and 5 per cent by the courts.
- The proportion of cases completed within the government’s target 40 weeks ranges from 31 to 69 per cent in the 10 largest courts.
- 70 per cent of children involved in proceedings are permanently removed from their parents.