Moves to stop judges scrutinising local authority care plans, outlined by the Family Justice Review, have been described as “dangerous” and “backwards”.
A recommendation put forward by the review, which last week published its interim report into the state of the family justice system in England and Wales, stated that courts should only focus on the “core issues” of whether a child could safely remain with, or return to, their parents or family and friends carers.
The court should not, it stated, examine the finer detail of the care plan, such as whether the child is placed in residential or foster care, and plans for sibling placements.
Review chair David Norgrove said the move would remove unnecessary debate from the court process, reduce delays and eliminate unnecessary duplication. “We don’t believe there’s a need for the multiple layers of checking that we’ve got,” he said, adding that guardians and independent reviewing officers (IROs) provided sufficient checks.
Councils would be expected to develop and implement “high quality” care plans, he said. The recommendation had been made in light of Eileen Munro’s review of social work, the report stated.
But Cathy Ashley, chief executive of the Family Rights Group, said: “This detail is really important to children’s lives; there should be more judicial scrutiny, not less. Councils will jump for a judge in a way they won’t for IROs.
“What happens if a local authority doesn’t get it right? What redresses and safeguards are there? It’s dangerous and a backwards step. The review should have waited at least three years, to see what improvements the Munro review makes, before taking this step.”
One senior guardian agreed. “Local authority practice is so variable that often those extra checks are needed. This would cut protection for children before there is any evidence that the quality of local authority social work has gone up. Children will carry the risk.”
Sir Nicholas Wall, president of the family division at the High Court, told MPs in October that he wanted more power for judges to be able to monitor progress on a care plan once a child entered the care system.
He included this in his submission to the review because the current situation makes it difficult for judges to make care orders. “On the one hand you have to weigh up the harm to the child with the family but, on the other hand, you don’t like the care plan,” he said.
But councils have welcomed the proposals, with Matt Dunkley, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), suggesting they could be implemented imminently if there was consensus from all those involved.
“The average length of time it takes to decide a care case is getting longer and longer and that has direct consequences on children’s well-being and outcomes,” he said.
“We’re all spending more money on lawyers and social work time in court and assessments which do not, by and large, seem to have that much impact on decisions made in court. This is money that could be saved now,” he added.
Cafcass’ chief executive Anthony Douglas agreed the proposal could help reduce delays. “The average case takes over 50 weeks, which in itself consigns many children to a longer limbo. The family justice review panel have suggested this excessive delay can be reduced if IROs take on some of this care plan scrutiny, so that the cases return to local authorities for implementation of the care plan much more quickly.
“If this independent check and balance works well, children will benefit. But, as with all the proposals, the devil will be in the implementation detail.”
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