The best-performing family court in the country

Derby's designated family judge James Orrell presides over the best performing family court in the country. Patrick Weir reports

 Orrell: “A real problem for some centres is the lack of case progression officers”

Derby’s designated family judge, James Orrell, presides over the best performing family court in the country. Patrick Weir reports

How long should it take to decide whether a child needs to be taken into care? Huge inconsistencies exist in the family justice system.

The best performing family court in the country, Derby County Court resolves 79% of its care cases within 40 weeks. Its designated family judge for 13 years, James Orrell, acknowledges that while Derby enjoys certain advantages not common to all family courts, “80 weeks is outrageous”.

“I think 30 weeks is a realistic target and the one we should be aiming for,” he says.

Orrell agrees with David Norgrove, the chair of the Family Justice Review Panel, that a time limit should be considered, despite, he concedes, a lot of people being worried by the prospect.

“These tremendous delays point to an ongoing tension, whereby the judiciary haven’t trusted local authorities and have sought to influence the way they formulate care plans,” he says.

But when this distrust is balanced against the current “inordinate delay” in care proceedings he says he has to agree with Norgrove’s recommendation that judges should only consider if a child should be taken into care or not.

Orrell agrees he is coming from an ­advantageous position. “First, I have a reasonably small number of judges to bring onside, so we all sing from the same hymn sheet. This means we can introduce initiatives such as mini-bundles, containing just the necessary information and no more, so a judge is quickly up to speed in care management cases.

“A real problem for a number of centres is not having a case progression officer. In Derby, this allows us to anticipate little crises in cases rather than react to them, and this is so important.”

Orrell also has high praise for local officers from children’s guardians body, Cafcass. “Whenever they see a problem emerging, they immediately get in touch,” he says. “Having seen statistics for other areas, the work of a Cafcass officer can be greatly increased when they’re asked to produce one or two addendum reports which aren’t necessary. We’ve tried to reduce the number of these reports to ensure the officer really is required to give evidence and we husband this situation as effectively as possible. But my impression is that as the volume of cases increases, the number of Cafcass officers doesn’t increase proportionally. We’ve sometimes had to wait as long as 16 weeks to receive their reports, which I can live with, but I’d be happier with 12 weeks.”

Orrell also denies suggestions that judges are influenced when making court orders by estimated levels of adoption breakdowns (thought by some to be as high as one in five placements). “All breakdowns are terribly sad, but the merits of a particular case determine which order you make.”

It is in adoption cases where he feels long delays are the most unjustifiable. “If there is a long delay and the child is between two and three-and-a-half, that is a huge percentage of their life. The child can struggle or not want to become attached to an adult, even though the adult is trying their utmost to do their best for them.”

Given the reduction in resources and rise in care cases, Orrell feels reform is important: “Norgrove is making recommendations based on the fact that the present system isn’t a system, that there are no more resources to meet what is likely to be a continuing post-baby Peter increase in care cases. It’s a challenge that we need to be more ingenious and efficient in dealing with.”

Court delays

● The Family Justice Review, in its interim report, claimed there should be a legal time limit of 26 weeks to decide all public law care applications.

● Cafcass recently released figures showing the national average is a year (52 weeks).

● The original target of 40 weeks was changed to 30, 50 and 80 weeks in 2010 depending on the complexity of the case.

● In the last quarter of 2010, just 18% of care and supervision cases were completed within 30 weeks while 13% took more than 80 weeks.

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