New research from the University of Bristol has revealed that family judges do not feel they are sufficiently well prepared to make decisions.
Led by Julia Pearce and Professor Judith Masson, the study's findings reveal that the courts rely very heavily on the parties' lawyers. In theory proceedings are controlled by the judge but in practice most issues are negotiated between the parties' lawyers.
Researchers explored the work of lawyers representing parents in care proceedings through observations of over 100 court hearings, including almost all of the hearings for 16 case studies, and over 60 research interviews with solicitors, barristers, judges and magistrates' legal advisers.
Professor Masson said: "A major reason for the failure of these reforms has been inadequate understanding of the way the system operates by those who designed the new procedures."
Changes to legal aid in 2007 mean that solicitors are generally paid a fixed fee for this work. This and the limited number of lawyers who do this work led to solicitors taking on more cases than in the past. The way parents are represented is changing as a consequence, with different lawyers appearing in court for parents at each hearing.
Professor Masson added: "For example, Bernie, one of the parents whose case we followed in the research, was represented by five different lawyers during the proceedings.
"Not only is lack of continuity stressful for parents it leads to cases taking longer and costing more. Lack of continuity is not just a problem for parents' representation in care cases. There is frequently little judicial continuity. In Bernie's case, which was heard in a family proceedings court, there was a different magistrates' legal adviser at nearly every hearing. Also the local authority was represented by a series of different lawyers and Bernie's son had five different social workers during the proceedings."
The research was carried out by researchers from the University's School of Law and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).