Social workers and courts will be expected to complete care cases in just six months when a recommendation made by the Family Justice Review is implemented by government.
Publishing his final report on the state of family justice in England and Wales today, review chair David Norgrove said the new limit would reduce “shocking delays” in the system that are leaving children’s lives in limbo.
On average, care cases currently take 13 months to complete, the review found.
“We need to eliminate the shocking delays in the system,” Norgrove said. “This is why we are recommending legislation to ensure that child protection cases must not be allowed to take any more than six months, save in exceptional circumstances.”
The recommendation, which will require legislative change, has already been endorsed by government. A spokesperson said: “We intend to introduce time limits of six months as part of a package of reforms to tackle delay.”
The spokesperson also revealed that, from January 2012, the government will publish league tables of court performance on processing care applications.
But the target is less likely to please social workers, many of whom had hoped the recommendation – first mooted in the review’s interim report – would be scrapped.
One social worker called it “arbitrary and unrealistic”. Another said: “Quicker decisions will not necessarily be the right ones. Speed should not come at an equally high cost.”
Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, previously told Community Care: “It won’t help to reduce delay. Most social workers don’t have the resources to complete care cases in six months so this could just be setting them up to fail.”
The report – which follows the most comprehensive review of family justice since the 1989 Children Act – proposes a radical re-design of a system under “huge strain”.
A new family justice service should be established, sponsored by the Ministry of Justice, the report recommended. Court social work services would form part of the new service, subsuming the role currently performed by family courts body Cafcass.
As expected, the panel issued its controversial recommendation – first included in the interim report – that judges should have their powers of scrutiny limited to core decisions, such as whether a child should be taken into care, rather than the detail of care plans.
Adoption panels should no longer consider whether a child before the court is suitable for adoption and the use of expert reports and witnesses should be reduced, it recommended.
Among its other reforms, the review proposed:
● A single family court to replace the current three tiers of court
● Charges to local authorities for public law applications should be removed
● In private law, the use of Parenting Agreements and a new “child arrangements order” to bring together arrangements for children’s care after separation, focusing on the child rather than “contact” and “residence”.
● Increased provision of mediation to prevent private law cases going to court unnecessarily.
Norgrove said the recommendations, if implemented, would ensure the beleaguered family justice system becomes much more effective.
He added: “Every year 500,000 children and adults are involved in the family justice system. They turn to it at times of great stress and conflict. It must deliver the best possible outcome for all children and families who use it, because its decisions directly affect the lives and futures of all those involved, and have repercussions for society as a whole.”
President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services Matt Dunkly said the proposals were fair. But he felt the roles of council social workers, court-appointed guardians and expert witnesses did need further clarification to prevent duplicated assessments.
“We acknowledge that there is significant work to do to increase the judiciary’s trust in local authority social work and vice versa and are committed to working with leaders of the judiciary locally and nationally to find ways of increasing our mutual understanding and improved partnership working.
“We agree that this must include improved training and professional development for all those involved in making the system work, and should build on the ongoing work of the Social Work Reform Board with local authorities to improve the quality of social work training, supervision and management.”
What do you think? Join the debate on CareSpace
Keep up to date with the latest developments in social care. Sign up to our daily and weekly emails