Social workers and children’s guardians in 25 areas will hold pre-court meetings in order to test whether this will curb delays to care proceedings.
Under the pilot, council or children’s trust and Cafcass practitioners will have an information sharing meeting once proceedings have been issued but before the case management hearing (CMH). The CMH identifies the main issues in the case and sets the timetable.
The Department for Education-commissioned trial, run by Research in Practice, comes with care and supervision order cases having averaged 44 weeks from April to June this year, compared with a legal maximum of 26 weeks.
Improving guardians’ knowledge of case
Research in Practice said that a Cafcass and Association of Directors of Children’s Services analysis of cases lasting more than 48 weeks had found preparation for the CMH could have been improved if guardians had a clearer understanding of work done with the family to date.
Guardians would be better informed about how far this work had supported positive change for the family, and about social workers’ analyses concerning the timing of the application for proceedings and the type of order sought, it added.
“In some instances, this increased clarity may reduce uncertainty that leads to requests for new expert assessments at the CMH,” said Research in Practice.
“In all cases, the meeting should ensure that guardians come to the CMH with enhanced and up to date understanding of the child and family’s situation.”
Case lengths well above legal maximum
The average length of care and supervision cases fell from 55 to 27 weeks, from 2011-16, but then rose steadily to 47 weeks in the first three months of last year, since when it has fallen slightly, to 44 weeks, according to Cafcass figures.
The increase in case duration came despite the number of care and supervision applications falling year on year from 2015-16 to 2021-22, before stabilising in 2022-23. They are on course to fall again in 2023-24.
While the Covid-19 lockdowns increased delay by reducing court capacity, resource shortages across local authorities, Cafcass and the family courts, and difficulties sourcing expert witnesses also contributed, found a House of Lords committee in a report in December 2022.
That was just after family court president Sir Andrew McFarlane “relaunched” the public law outline (PLO) – which governs how cases are managed – in order to reduce delay.
This involves minimising the use of experts, keeping the number of hearings to three per case and limiting the court’s decision-making to whether the care or supervision order threshold is met, permanence provisions, contact arrangements and final orders, excluding the wider care plan.
At the time, Sir Andrew said delay had become “normalised” and said he was launching a campaign to “exhort, require and expect every single professional, judge, magistrate or staff member in the system to get back to operating the PLO in full and without exception”.
Research in Practice identified a number of challenges with the pre-CMH meeting pilot, including maintaining the independence of the guardian and ensuring there was fair and transparent sharing of the views of children and parents at the meeting, and timely feedback to them afterwards.
It also warned that it would be a challenge to fit the pre-CMH meeting into the tight PLO timescales, meaning that pilot areas would liaise closely with courts service officers in making this work.
ADCS and Cafcass backing for pilot
Cafcass and the ADCS both welcomed the pilot.
Cafcass chief executive Jacky Tiotto told Community Care that pre-CMH meetings “stood a high chance of helping” with delay.
She said the meetings would help guardians identify issues such as whether there were family members likely to come forward to offer to care for the child, and mean work could be “frontloaded” so that it would not be required later in the case.
For ADCS, families, communities and young people policy committee chair Helen Lincoln said: “The backlog we are experiencing in the family courts and the length of time care proceedings are taking does not serve children’s best interests.
“Everyone within the system is working tirelessly and rightly trying to prioritise children but the lasting impacts of the pandemic and a rising number of children coming into contact with children’s services add extra difficulties.
“ADCS welcomes efforts to explore ways that will allow care proceedings to be resolved quicker and become a less adversarial process.”