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Care proceedings in 26 weeks: justice, speed and thoroughness

Date:1 MAY 2014

Family Law special issue

Dr Jonathan Dickens, Centre for Research on Children and Families, University of East Anglia

The challenges of reconciling speed and thoroughness in child care cases are well known to all practitioners in the family justice system. In that sense, the current programme to drive down the duration of care proceedings to 26 weeks is nothing new, but rather an intensification of long-standing and highly demanding dilemmas. This paper draws on findings from two research projects to highlight how the tensions play out in practice and to identify some key messages for lawyers and the courts. The first is a study of the formal pre-proceedings process in England and Wales (the pre-proceedings letter and meeting), undertaken in 2010-12 by the Universities of Bristol and East Anglia (Masson et al, Partnership by Law? (2013)). The second is an evaluation of the Tri-borough care proceedings pilot, an early initiative to meet the 26-week target. The pilot ran from April 2012 to March 2013, and was evaluated by the University of East Anglia (Beckett et al, Concluding Care Proceedings in 26 Weeks (2013)). The full reports of both these studies are available for free on the website of the UEA Centre for Research on Children and Families: www.uea.ac.uk/centre-research-child-family/child-protection-and-family-support.

The 26-week deadline puts a renewed emphasis on the quality of the work undertaken with families before cases come to court, the quality of the documentation, and the quality of the legal advice available to parents and social workers. There is also a renewed imperative on the courts to take due account of pre-proceedings work, to break the old habits of further assessments and delay. Recent case judgments have exposed the tensions of having simultaneous goals of greater speed and greater thoroughness, notably Re B-S (Adoption: Application of s 47(5)) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146, [2014] 2 FLR (forthcoming and reported at December [2013] Fam Law 1515) where the President warns of the dangers of ‘rigorous adherence to an inflexible timetable' (para [49]). The research shows that it is possible to achieve speed and thoroughness, but this requires adaptations and commitment from all the professional groups.     

The full version of this article appears in the May Special Issue of Family Law.

Online subscribers can access the full article here