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'Serious concerns' about implementation of the Public Law Outline

Date:27 JUL 2009

Guidelines designed to protect both the welfare of children during care cases and make more efficient use of court time may not be working, according to an early evaluation report commissioned by the Ministry of Justice.

The Public Law Outline was introduced by the Ministry of Justice in April 2008. The guidelines are designed to ensure the efficient management of care applications to the Family Courts when a local authority is concerned about the safety of a child.

The Public Law Outline received general support from judges, magistrates, legal advisers and solicitors but research by the National Centre for Social Research and the Oxford Centre for Family Law and Policy uncovered concern that it may not be helping to eradicate some key problems.

The report authors had serious concerns that children may not be represented adequately during the pre-proceedings process. This is exacerbated by delays in the assignment of a guardian.

The evaluation also found that parents may not be getting good quality legal advice because the level at which lawyers' fees are set mean that only less experienced or non-specialist lawyers are available.

The report concluded: "our study revealed a range of serious concerns regarding the pre-proceedings process. These included (but were not limited to) the efficacy of the process in preventing cases coming to court; duration of the pre-proceedings process and potential delays in issuing proceedings as a result; access to and take-up of effective legal advice for both parents and children; and the welfare, voice and human rights of the child during the pre-proceedings process.

"We urgently recommend an evaluation of the pre-proceedings process that includes greater access to and input from local authorities."

The early evaluation of the Public Law Outline is based on an examination of 53 case bundles, interviews with 72 key practitioners and observations of 16 hearings.

One of the reports authors, Peter Keogh, said: "Practitioners who took part in the research pointed out that the introduction of these guidelines coincided with a period of substantial change to the Family Justice System. The cost of bringing a case to court has increased significantly for Local Authorities. Courts are also under a great deal of pressure because the number of applications to place a child in care or under supervision has increased following the murder of Baby Peter.

"In two of the three areas where we conducted our research there was also a shortage of guardians. This is the adverse climate in which the Public Law Outline must operate, but it must operate well if the system is to work in the interests of children".

To download a copy of the report, click here.