Average length of care proceedings at nine-year high

Care proceedings took 43 weeks to complete on average in January-March, as some in the sector question the viability of the government’s 26-week target

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The duration of care proceedings reached 43 weeks in January-March this year, the highest average since mid-2012 and more than 17 weeks above target levels.

Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures showed that just 22% of proceedings were completed within the government’s 26-week target in the first three months of the year, 14 percentage points less than during the same period in 2020.

Sector figures said the chances of meeting the 26-week target, which has not been achieved in five years, were becoming “vanishingly small” and that other measures of success should be prioritised.

The 43-week average length of proceedings in the first quarter of the year was eight weeks longer than the same period a year earlier.

A backlog of cases that built up during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, during which face-to-face hearings were largely stopped, is likely to have contributed to the rise.

Outstanding  public law cases, were at 13,434 last month, according to separately published government data, higher than the pre-Covid baseline of 12,295 but representing a steady fall from a high of 14,262 in late November 2020.

This reflects the fact that, for the first time in recent years, the number of cases completed exceeded those opened during the first quarter of the year.

The number of cases opened fell by 7% on the previous year to 4,088, while those completed increased by 11% to 4,135.

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26-week target getting further away

Care proceedings’ average duration has risen consistently since 2016 when it stood at 27 weeks, two years after the 26-week target was set in law by the Children and Families Act 2014.

The Covid-19 pandemic added additional challenges, with many hearings held virtually over the past 15 months and other, more complex cases, delayed.

Lisa Harker, director of Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, said the latest figures showed the courts’ ability to meet the target is becoming “vanishingly small”.

“Early responses to our most recent consultation on remote hearings in the family court suggest there are simply not enough lawyers, social workers, judges, or even courts, to meet rising demand,” she said.

“We have repeatedly heard from both parents and professionals that newly remote court proceedings can fail to deliver a fair or humane experience for all those involved, which should be an equally important measure of success as the 26-week target.”

‘Working tirelessly’

Sara Tough, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) families, communities and young people policy committee, said the main aim should be “meeting the individual needs of a child or young person”, even if it took longer than 26 weeks to process their case.

“The courts are ensuring that hearings are conducted in a Covid-safe way, which can cause delays, for example, the use of remote hearings often take longer and are not well suited to complex, contested hearings,” she said.

“Everyone within the system is working tirelessly and rightly trying to prioritise children but under the current national restrictions this adds extra difficulties.”

The MoJ’s report said: “It may be some time until improvements as a result of recovery measures taken begin to show, particularly relating to timeliness measures as outstanding cases are dealt with.”

A spokesperson from Cafcass added: “Due to a range of factors across the family justice system relating to the pandemic, including the limited capacity in courts and the need for crucial decisions regarding the futures of vulnerable children to be properly considered, this has meant that the average duration of cases is longer.

“Cafcass continues to do everything it can to support an efficient court process and ensure that the outcome for each individual child is safe and in their best interest.”

The latest statistics also showed that applications for domestic violence remedy orders in January to March increased by 12% on the previous year to 8,974, as did orders issued, which rose by 13% to 10,057. In both cases, the rises were driven by increases in non-molestation applications and orders.

The MoJ report suggested rises could be driven by publicity around the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and a police practice of releasing alleged perpetrators without bail conditions, leading victims to seek protective orders.

 

6 Responses to Average length of care proceedings at nine-year high

  1. Susan Hughes June 29, 2021 at 7:25 pm #

    This is rediculous to say this
    The 26 week is an impossible task and courts will leave cases half completed to ‘test’ the plan!!
    And LA can return to court if need another order
    Too much work for social workers -push towards reducing care orders as a back door plan to reduce LAC etc
    What happened to the voice of the child
    The welfare principle etc
    Seen money more important
    We intervene later and have left with more traumatised children due to push for pre-proceeding which is also inc in 26 weeks !!

    • Darren Morrow July 5, 2021 at 12:27 pm #

      Pre proceedings are not included in the 26 weeks.

  2. frustrated June 29, 2021 at 11:01 pm #

    At least one authority delayed removing children to a safe place so that they had more chance of meeting the court deadline. This meant on at least one case two children received further harm that should have been prevented. I sometimes wonder how the added trauma of those weeks affected them into their new lives.

  3. Tom J June 30, 2021 at 10:13 am #

    Its quite surprising for the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) to come out and say that they are not too fussed about the 26 week timescale as they have decided it should be based upon the ”individual needs of a child or young person”.

    That said though there is definitely a postcode lottery here, as not every local authority/court takes the ADCS’s lackadaisical approach to the 26 weeks, in fact some act as though it must be followed to the letter.

  4. Marilyn Josefsen July 2, 2021 at 4:23 pm #

    We had a parent and unborn baby assessment. Baby was 18 months old before the Placement Order was granted. Baby was attached to the mother and the foster carer and then separated. This time delay is not in the best interest of a child or their carers.

  5. Colin Mabbutt July 2, 2021 at 7:02 pm #

    I agree that the ADCS comments are surprising. The purpose of the 26 weeks is to work to the children’s timescales. A child in care proceedings for 2 years as many cases are in our area has to live with uncertainty, unable to progress permanency, stability and safety from trauma. They may lose the opportunity to be adopted due to their age, or go into adoption with a higher degree of awareness that threatens the plan.

    The trauma of protracted care proceedings must be excruciating for parents, especially if their children are in care. They need resolution too.

    Contact is stressful for children. 2ce per week opens the door for conflict of loyalties for the child for a very long period. Placements may be undermined as parents seek to challenge foster carers to present that they can do better.

    Social work resources are stretched to the max and courts require further updating assessments of the parents creating a roller coaster of emotions for the children and parents.

    Social workers are routinely criticised for causing delays in court, but the impact of COVID is that the court backlog is huge, and that has to be the responsibility of the judiciary to resolve.

    I think the ADCS should be strongly advocating that the current delays are abusive to children, damaging to parents, and hugely resource intensive for local authorities, beyond what we have capacity to offer. Social workers are in an impossible situation trying to mitigate the damage.

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