Judges are not sufficiently prepared to make decisions in care proceedings cases, according to a study from the University of Bristol, published today.
Researchers’ interviews with a number of judges revealed that judges often did not have enough time to read through the relevant materials before a hearing, leaving most issues to be negotiated between the parties’ lawyers. Judges said this was due to both the volume of material as well as the frequent occurrence of last-minute submissions. The problem, they said, was often out of their control.
“You are at the mercy of all the other agents involved in the process,” one judge told researchers.
“Not only are there the current concerns we’ve all got about Cafcass, you’ve also got the problems of heavily over-stretched local authorities, the shortage of experts in some areas, and the long waiting times before they start work and produce a report in some specialties. So from the judicial perspective, you’ve got a whole range of problems that you can’t completely control.”
A lack of continuity of judges was also sited as contributing to their lack of case knowledge. Too often, the report said, courts were faced with the difficult choice between case continuity and delay.
One judge said: “The worse thing that can happen is that you say, ‘we must have Judge X or Judge Y, we can’t have him for 4 months, therefore we won’t have that earlier slot for another judge in 6 weeks’. That would possibly be doing a grave disservice to the children if the case can be handed on.”
While the study did not make any recommendations for system improvement, it did pose a number of questions to be considered by the Family Justice System Review, which it was written to inform:
• How can the court ensure its directions are complied with? And what should its response be where this does not happen?
• Can proceedings be refashioned so they are completed within a realistic timescale for the child by ensuring more active judicial case management?
• What additional resources can be provided so judges have sufficient knowledge about all the cases for which they are responsible?
• What training and support should be given to judges so they have the confidence to make decisions in care proceedings without numerous expert assessments and within shorter time-scales?
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