Leading children's charity Barnardo's has published new data today revealing the extent of court delays in family courts in England and Wales.
A five year long pattern of deterioration has led to family courts taking up to 65 weeks to reach a decision in care proceedings cases.
Barnardo's says that vulnerable children are waiting on average more than a year (57 weeks) in unstable family homes or emergency foster placements before a county court decides if they will be taken into care.
Court data shows that at the end of 2009 there were 50 per cent more unresolved care proceedings cases than at the end of 2008. According to Cafcass new applications in England account for less than half of this increase, indicating that the courts are taking longer to close a significant number of cases.
Martin Narey, Barnardo's chief executive, said: "An insecurity has spread through the family courts with additional, sequential expert assessments being routinely ordered. This paired with the evident lack of credence given to social workers, is causing unnecessary delay.
"The courts need urgently to reflect on the damage these delays are having on extremely vulnerable children. A year of a child's life is an inordinate amount of time for them to be trapped in desperate limbo, unclear of their future and very possibly at risk."
However, a leading family solicitor believes that Barnardos research shows a lack of engagement and understanding of the family justice system.
Simon Heaney, Director of Heaney Watson solicitors, said: "Barnardos give the impression that the family justice system is full of social workers, judges and others, blindly and without thought twiddling their thumbs whilst children languish in the court system awaiting to hear their fate.
"Do Barnardos really think judges should be trained to ‘improve understanding of the impact on child development'? The judges are committed and skilled and constantly work to ensure that as well as having the child's welfare as their paramount consideration, proceedings are considered with constant reference to the ‘timetable for the child'. All concerned would love a system whereby the necessary reports and documentation as well as judicial availability could speed up the system. The fact is due to lack of resource, which is a factor that is bound to exacerbate, the system cannot be as fast as anyone would wish.
Mr Heaney added: "Likewise the suggestion of liason forums to improve links between social services and the legal professions - presumably Barnardos do not participate in the groups that already exist, such as the family justice council, who's local groups regularly meet, share information on a collaborative basis across all disciplines?"