Friday, 20 August 2010

Family Proceedings - a sensible view

My heart sank last week with Barnardo's calling for the speeding-up of care proceedings. So it was good to read a very sensible and well-informed piece in the Guardian by Leslie Baker, a family court magistrate ("Decisions on care orders are too sensitive to be given a fixed deadline" Friday 20 August 2010).

Baker rightly points out that the family courts do not simply grant a care order because a local authority has asked for one. The process involves the careful gathering of evidence and informed decision-making. The quicker this can be done the better, but some cases are very complex and cannot be rushed.

And the article reminds us that the family court can only function as quickly as key agencies, such as children's social care and CAFCASS,  can undertake the work necessary to inform the decision. As Baker points out these agencies are under unprecedented stress, due to staff shortages and increased work since the Baby Peter tragedy.

Speeding-up the proceedings without resourcing these agencies more effectively would be bound to result in miscarriages of justice and in the courts failing to act in the best interests of the child.

Monday, 16 August 2010

A step in the right direction

“The age at which a child can be prosecuted in adult criminal courts will rise from eight to 12 to help ensure the rights and needs of children are balanced properly with the protection of communities.”

So says a press release from the Scottish Government -

This is clearly a step in the right direction. The UK Government now needs to consider increasing the age of criminal responsibility in England from ten to twelve at least.

Putting very young people through the criminal courts is a form of institutionalised abuse and serves no clear purpose. Urgent action is required to put this right.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Unmanageable Caseloads

Community Care today reports the findings of a recent poll of child protection social workers. It found that:

  • 40% regarded their caseload as unmanageable
  • 16% said it was totally unmanageable
  • 75% said they spent 70% of their time on administration work
  • 84% said they often had to work overtime to get the job done

We keep hearing the same thing about workloads from a number of different sources. And that 70%-80% figure for the amount of time devoted to administration now seems to be well established.

The Integrated Children’s System (ICS) is one important factor in this sad story. Rather than supporting the natural business and professional processes that are necessary to do the job, it imposes fixed and unrealistic expectations which people have to meet in addition to doing the ‘day job”.

It’s been a bit quiet on the ICS front of late. It’s not good enough simply to try to make it more user-friendly. There is a need to go back to square one and design a system that actually simplifies the administration child protection social workers have to do. That will give them more time to work with families and to make important decisions.

Monday, 9 August 2010

And a crisis in the family court legal aid system ...

Now for the ‘triple whammy'. According to Community Care today, Sir Nicholas Wall, the president of the Family Division of the High Court, has written to the Legal Services Commission expressing serious concerns from judges about the new tendering process for family court legal aid work.

It is feared that the number of firms practising family court legal aid work may halve as a result of the new arrangements. Not only would that add to delays in the family courts, but it may also mean that it is much more difficult for children and young people to have access to experienced legal representatives in care proceedings.

The Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education need to set up a joint working party to tackle this thorny knot of problems about the care system and they need to do it now!

And a crisis in foster care ...

Hard on the heels of concerns about unprecedented demands on the family courts, comes a report from the Fostering Network confirming a national shortfall of approximately 10,000 foster placements -

The report’s title – “Bursting at the Seams” – says it all.

This is more proof that the whole care system is under extreme pressure. And it should signal caution in calling for care proceedings to be speeded up, because the huge shortage of foster placements could result in having even more children in care with nowhere suitable to place them.

There needs to be an urgent review of what to do about the rise in care proceedings since the Baby Peter tragedy. This is not a blip, but a sustained trend that threatens to tax the system to its limits so putting children in dangerous situations.

Ministers need to act now.

Family Court Crisis

Barnardo’s is right to highlight the issue of delays in the family court system with children waiting on average one year for the outcomes of care proceedings - These concerns echo those of retired judge Sir Mark Potter, who stepped down as president of the family division and head of family justice for England and Wales earlier this year. The Guardian then reported Sir Mark as saying that the family court system was in crisis with lack of funding and huge increases in the number of care proceedings cases following the Baby Peter tragedy.

However, I have severe doubts about whether a Government imposed time limit in care proceedings, as proposed by Barnardo’s, is the correct way forward. Simply speeding-up the process without tackling resource issues may result in miscarriages of justice and serious mistakes about the best interests of individual children. A child taken into care unnecessarily is as much a tragedy as a child who is not afforded the necessary protection of a care order.

The crucial issue is the capacity of the family courts. This has been strained by the increase in cases since the Baby Peter tragedy. Rather than simply requiring courts to make decisions more quickly, and thereby risking getting it wrong, Government has to bite the bullet: more cases inevitably means more cost and therefore requires more funding.