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.”
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.