The process of taking children into care is being improved through a revision of a judicial protocol known as the Public Law Outline. Anthony Douglas (pictured right), head of Cafcass, here explains the changes. He will be speaking on this subject at a forthcoming Community Care conference
The removal of a child from a parent is one of the most serious interventions a state can make in the lives of its citizens. It is vital, therefore, that the evidence for any such action is clearly laid out in a court of law, with family members able to state their case and with the needs, wishes and feelings of the child in question able to be fully understood and represented.
While the focus of public concern is often on potential miscarriages of justice for wrongly accused parents, the risk of miscarriages of justice for vulnerable children is much more the stuff of law, and rightly so.
The UK system has multiple safeguards, such as separate legal representation for family members and independent oversight of the work of local authorities by children’s guardians from Cafcass in England and Cafcass Cymru in Wales. Around the world, few jurisdictions have such high levels of checks and balances.
The Public Law Outline, or PLO to use its ambiguous acronym, is a revision of the 2003 Judicial Protocol, which was itself an attempt to reduce unwarranted delays in family court cases. For the right reasons, reducing delay remains a top political priority as every day matters for some children in the care system.
How will the PLO improve proceedings?
The PLO emphasises the importance of strong judicial case management throughout a case; of narrowing the issues in dispute and seeking to resolve these at a much earlier stage; of reducing the amount of written material and oral evidence so that practitioners can focus on the big issues in a case; and of introducing a pre-proceedings gate-keeping regime to ensure local authority cases are better assessed prior to an application to court being made. With more than 80% of applications to court currently lacking a core assessment, there is a long way to go to make the system operate as intended.
A significant change under the PLO is the requirement for an individual timetable for each child to eventually replace the wooden 40-week target to complete all cases. The shift is a recognition that some cases can be dealt with in less than 40 weeks, while others will take longer for a good reason – even with the PLO in full flow.
All change causes anxiety. Change introduced without a lead-in period risks the detail not being dealt with properly. In relation to the PLO, the main uncertainty is the lack of certainty. It is, then, good news that all concerned have agreed on the need for an “implementation year” after the launch of the PLO in April.
There are already examples of the PLO leading to improved practice, such as the setting up of an interagency project board in Newcastle and Sunderland, the pro-active listing of early final hearing dates on Merseyside, and the production of an interagency DVD by national partners to support the interagency training programme being rolled out early in 2008.
Family court cases are often in the media glare, and they attract polarised comment. Practitioners from all the disciplines represented in the family courts have to keep pace with social trends and the complexity of legislation and case law.
There are difficult interfaces, for example with the administrative court dealing with asylum cases which often have a family element and where steps to move the two systems closer together are only just beginning. Similarly, the new family Drug and Alcohol Court in London, which combines criminal and care elements of a case in one system, is recognition of the growth of substance misuse as a primary problem for parents under scrutiny in care cases.
By seeking to modernise the framework in which public law child care proceedings are carried out, the PLO is one of several necessary reforms to the family court system underway. The more airtime it can get, the quicker it will be understood and applied in the interests of some of the country’s most vulnerable children.