Just under three quarters of family courts are unlikely to meet the new 26-week time limit for care proceedings, according to Cafcass figures.
Data from the children and family court advisory and support service reveal the average length of care proceedings that closed between April and June this year exceeded the target, taking 31 weeks.
These figures are unlikely to include many cases that have been come under the 26-week time limit, ushered in by the Children and Families Act 2014, which only applied to cases beginning after April 22 this year.
However, it does show only 12 designated family judge areas (DFJ) would currently meet the 26-week time limit.
Cafcass defends progress
Cafcass chief Anthony Douglas insisted that new cases are being completed much faster than they were in every preceeding quarter, referencing the trend that has seen care proceedings take 10 weeks less on average since this time last year.
Twenty-one DFJ areas manage to close care proceedings between 27 and 35 weeks, however eight required longer than 36 weeks to close proceedings with Taunton, on average, requiring 41 weeks to close cases.
Douglas added that he is confident family courts will meet the new restrictions: “I think the national average will definitely be under 26 weeks in new cases by the 3rd quarter when we publish.”
When quizzed about how Cafcass employees are finding working under the new time limits, Douglas said they are working well.
“I think most practitioners think still that 26 weeks is far too long. Of course we’ve got to get it right but I don’t hear anybody saying that it’s too short a time,” he added.
Warning from social workers
Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), said the figures added to the Association’s reservations about the 26-week deadline.
“It’s great if care proceedings can be completed within or even below 26 weeks, but this will not be possible in all cases and the danger is that professionals and organisations obsess about timescales as a result of the pressures to hit their targets. We don’t always get a decision-making process that is necessarily about the best interests of the child,” she warned.
Douglas said Cafcass hopes to finish 60-70% of cases within 26-weeks and will allow “exceptional” cases that require longer deliberation to exceed this.
According to the new laws, which came into force in April, courts can extend proceedings by 8 weeks if the case requires it.
He also said staff are not concerned with the time limits as much as they are concerned with other issues such as having enough adoption places for the children and young people.