Care proceedings have been described as one of “the most intrusive state interventions into the lives of children and families”. They are also increasingly common, with demand having increased exponentially over the past two years and the trend showing no signs of stopping.
Yet the average time taken to conclude cases has fallen from 56 weeks in 2011 to between 25 and 28 weeks in the first quarter of this year. The dramatic drop is largely down to the introduction in 2014 of a Public Law Outline (PLO) and statutory 26-week time-limit for completion of care proceedings in all but exceptional circumstances. Around 60% of cases currently meet the timescale.
Research out this week suggests the shift is improving outcomes for children, with placements more stable and no rise in children being taken into care. However, the study was only focused on a small group of outstanding-rated children’s services. The team behind it also warned that the new way of working put extra pressure on social workers.
So how are practitioners working on these cases day-to-day in other areas finding the PLO in practice?
“I can’t imagine where we would be without the public law outline,” says Adam Birchall, principal social worker for children in Solihull.
“It really sets out clearly what it is you need to do beforehand. I think that has been one of the drivers behind local authorities thinking about what practice framework is going to work.”
Birchall remembers how prior to the PLO’s introduction some cases could last for years. He feels without a change services would have been “overwhelmed a long time ago” given the way case numbers have risen. Most importantly, he says, the lengthy delays of the past let down children.
“It literally would go on for years. These are children we are saying are suffering so much harm they can’t be at home, and their final plans just aren’t there. How devastating must that be if they are waiting?
“I don’t think it should always be short and sharp, because there are times when it is complex and needs more time, but I think a reduced timeframe has been beneficial for children.”
Claire Beckingham, a children’s guardian and team manager for Cafcass, agrees. She remembers seeing cases that “drifted on” for 41 weeks – “when you think about young children, that is disastrous” – and feels that the 26-week timeline is both achievable and sensible in most cases.
“If we didn’t have that input there would be a point where the system would grind to a halt because there would be more coming in than was going out. That would be for guardians, the judiciary and everyone else.”
The demands of completing more cases within shorter timescales is requiring adjustments across the care system though. Judges are fitting in more hearings every week and for Beckingham’s team at Cafcass, the time spent in court has jumped considerably. Checking her team’s calendar, she spots one guardian who has nine hearings in five days, a schedule she says is “not unusual”.
“I remember being horrified when it first switched to more hearings than there were days in the week. I thought ‘how is this manageable’? I remember the first time I had six hearings in five days and being worried about how it would work out in practice, but it did.”
One of the reasons it can work, says Beckingham, is that there is “much more frontloading of cases”. This tries to ensure that wherever processes can be completed prior to proceedings starting, they are, and potential delays are minimised.
Sophie Ayers, a children’s social worker in a dedicated care proceedings team, gives an example: “It is an expectation that a parenting assessment and extended family assessments are completed prior to the initial application to the court being made. This should mean that care proceedings work seamlessly and decisions can be made within 26 weeks.”
Ayers believes the status of social workers is improving in the family courts. She says an upshot of this is that fewer additional assessments from independent social workers seem to be requested, another process that can create delays.
Lucy Reed, a family court lawyer who also chairs the Transparency Project, makes a similar point about additional assessments. For Reed, the timescales have increased everyone’s focus on minimising delays unless they’re totally unavoidable and this in turn has helped empower social workers to use their professional judgment in cases.
“We were a bit sloppy about assessments and we were ordering too many. It’s easier than making a decision yourself as a professional. There was a tendency among professionals to say, ‘This is a bit tricky let’s ask a psychologist’, and I think there’s more focus now.”
There are, however, concerns about the new system. Both Birchall and Ayers say the tighter deadlines are leading to social workers working longer hours, a factor Birchall fears is likely to impact social worker retention if it goes unaddressed.
Ayers says the increasing pressures of court work has made things “much harder” for social workers. She describes herself as lucky to be working in a team that deals solely with care proceedings but she worries other practitioners aren’t as fortunate.
“I do not believe that all managers have grasped the significant increase in workload and demand on the social worker in the current court arena. A case in court can sometimes become a full-time workload and it is imperative that you have an attuned and realistic manager to support you through this process.
Making it work
“I believe that social workers make the current situation work at the expense of their own private lives. However, there are times when I have felt overwhelmed and have missed deadlines due to juggling so many balls.
“I believe that the most significant factor to transform the family court would be to forget the constraints of a 26-week deadline at a point when a really viable family member is identified and have the freedom to stretch this much further in line with the potential carer’s and child’s individual needs”.
This concern over family members being brought forward late in proceedings is one almost universally shared under this new system. Is there the flexibility to mitigate the risks to this?
Ayers says parents putting forward family members is “common place” and this does not “always fit with the strict guidance regarding court timescales”.
Reed says she’s heard of judges refusing to extend proceedings in these circumstances and instead demanding a “very short assessment or viability assessment” of the family member.
“I had a case the other week where a family member came up very late with an extended family member who hadn’t been mentioned before. [The judge] called him straight into court, got him sworn, cross-examined him with the assistance of the parents’ counsel putting him forward and effectively conducted the viability assessment in the witness box.”
This, Reed feels, reflects that sometimes there’s “too much of a judicial focus” on the 26-week statistic and meeting the timescale rather than the issues in the individual case.
“I don’t think judges should be making individual decisions on the basis of statistics and whether or not they are going to get their wrist slapped because their statistics are not good.
“Sometimes judges refer to the statistics in court. I don’t think that is a message that parents should be hearing. I think they should be hearing that their case will be dealt with based on what the family and child needs.”
With the majority of cases being completed in 26 weeks, it’s clear the PLO is starting to have the desired effect set out ministers when it was introduced back in 2014. Paths to permanence are becoming shorter, and the broad consensus is that this is a good thing.
However, there are warning signs over the system’s fragility. Care proceedings are continuing to rise in line with child protection plans and children in care. As public funds tighten, the chief of the family courts has warned of a looming “crisis” in the courts. Beckingham speaks of more guardians in more hearings than there are days in the week. Birchall questions how sustainable the current approach is.
Among the praise for how the outline has helped improve timeliness, focus and – in one study at least – outcomes for children, Reed best sums up the undercurrent of anxiety about the system social workers, guardians, judges and barristers are applying it in: “If there isn’t a reduction – or stabilisation – of the number of cases coming in, then there’s a crunch point coming.”