A pilot project to reduce unnecessary delay for children undergoing care proceedings has been largely successful.
The Care Proceedings Pilot project was carried out jointly between three London boroughs: Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster between 1 April 2012 and 31 March 2013 and covered 90 cases. It aimed to reduce delay in care proceedings in line with the current drive to reduce timescales for children subject to care proceedings down to 26 weeks.
The median duration of care proceedings in the first 9 months of the pilot was 27 weeks, compared to a median duration of 49 weeks for cases in the previous year in the same London boroughs. Excluding FDAC cases, the median duration was 26 weeks. In 48% of cases in the pilot, proceedings were concluded in 26 weeks or less.
Court hearings were also reduced by 24% under the project, from a mean number of 5.2 hearings in the previous year to 3.9 hearings in 2012/13. There was no evidence to show that the reduction in duration of proceedings had led to more delay in the pre-proceedings stage.
Some factors stood out as being important to the success of the pilot. The role of the case manager, and the commitment and leadership of all agencies were vital, as was robust court management by judges and magistrates. Dedicated court time, and the availability of guardians at the initial hearing were also important.
In terms of costs, there was strong evidence to show that the pilot reduced local authorities' legal costs by reducing the number of hearings and assessments and the overall length of proceedings.
In the full evaluation of the pilot, carried out by the Centre for Research on Children and Families at the University of East Anglia, it was noted that court timetabling problems and non-availability of guardians could both hold things up in future if numbers of proceedings increased. Family solicitors involved in the project also expressed concerns about whether the courts could accommodate the 26-week timeframe in a climate where the MoJ is trying to make savings in terms of judicial sittings and the appointment of full-time judges.
As part of the evaluation, the potential implications of the reduction in the duration of proceedings on justice and thoroughness were analysed.
Whether the success of the pilot might be sustainable in the long term, and outside of the Triborough area, was the question leading on from the results. It was felt that commitment to and enthusiasm for the process was a strong influence on the success of the scheme. Social workers, guardians, family lawyers and judges involved in the pilot project were all motivated by a desire to improve timescales for children but some wondered whether it would be possible to sustain this momentum on a wider scale, and whether the Triborough pilot, covering a relatively wealthy area, might be a special case.
One of the judges who was involved in the project said:
"I think that you could probably say that the sustainability of it has been greatly enhanced by the fact that the Family Justice Review recommended that all cases should complete within 26 weeks and that is going to be enshrined in legislation, and that the President is to focus on driving this through and that has given it really such a boost, that it makes it much more likely that it will be sustained than if it had just remained these three boroughs who were then going to try and continue to work at that level ... But I think these three boroughs particularly, given the support that it has had from Andrew Christie who is Director of Children's Services across the three boroughs, plus the appointment of Clare Chamberlain now as the Children and Families Assistant Director for Kensington and Chelsea, given that she was the project director ... probably there will be quite an incentive to keep that up and to demonstrate that it wasn't a nine day wonder."