The head of the family courts has issued a dire warning about court, barrister and local authority ability to cope with rising numbers of care cases.
In a commentary about the family courts, published this week, Sir James Munby, president of the High Court’s family division, described the system as “at full stretch” and facing “a clear and imminent crisis”.
This warning followed another record month for care applications. In the past 10 years, the number of care applications going through the courts have doubled, and 2016-17 already looks to be another record year for case numbers.
“Everyone – everyone – is working as hard as they can,” Munby said.
“We are facing a crisis and, truth be told, we have no very clear strategy for meeting the crisis.”
He said the “immediate” implications would be the need to continue struggling to cope with existing resources, as it was unlikely there would be an increase in funding. He added that the “very large” increase in care cases was also driving up the costs of legal aid.
He congratulated people working in the care system for first managing to drive down the time it takes to complete care proceedings and then holding time periods for cases steady in the past year, in the face of increasing demand.
“To keep the [time it takes to complete proceedings] level as the caseload increased by 14% is an astonishing achievement.”
However, he believed that achievement could not be maintained “as caseloads continue to rise”.
He said more research was needed urgently to identify the reasons for the rise in care cases. He said that, in principle, there were three possible causes: increasing amounts of abuse or neglect; local authorities becoming more adept at identifying abuse or neglect, or local authorities “lowering the threshold for intervention”, Munby said.
He said he didn’t believe abuse and neglect was rising enough to account for the rise in care applications, and so local authority behaviour “must be playing a significant role” in the rise of cases. This was supported by statistics showing a wide variation in the scale of the increases in cases in recent years. Munby said research was needed into changes in the breakdown of cases by types of abuse and in the profile of children or families, and also into the relative impact of short-term factors, such as specific judicial rulings in relation to section 20 of the Children Act.
On steps that could be taken immediately, Munby said there were too many documents that were “still too long”, local authority threshold statements needed to be shorter and there needed to be more scrutiny when applications for experts were being considered.
However, he said that basic principles of family justice – including the retention of the tandem model, in which the child is represented by a solicitor and a guardian – could not be compromised.
“This is going to be uncomfortable and difficult for all of us. I have said before but I repeat, because the point is so important, that I will never countenance any departure from the fundamentals,” Munby said.
The single, most important thing that could be done to tackle the crisis was a shift in the focus of the family courts towards tackling the causes of care cases, he added. He cited positively the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC), which seeks to use proceedings to help parents tackle substance misuse problems and thereby keep hold of their children, and Pause, which supports women at risk of repeat removals of children.
“FDAC, Pause and similar projects are, at present, the best hope, indeed, in truth, the only hope, we have of bringing the system, the ever increasing numbers of care cases, under control,” he concluded.