The Greater Manchester Gatekeeping and Allocation Pilot ran between April 2012 and July 2013. All care proceedings work in Greater Manchester is centralised and all the magistrates, legal advisers and judges are located in one court centre, as will be the case following the introduction of the Single Family Court.
The Pilot comprised a district judge and a FPC Legal Adviser meeting between 10.00 and 11.00 am each working day to consider all newly issued proceedings from the preceding day and to determine allocation to the FPC, the county court or the High Court.
This evaluation of the Pilot was carried out by a research team at Manchester Metropolitan University (Professor Hugh McLaughlin, Kathryn Newton and Ann Potter). It consists of an analysis of the literature, semi-structured interviews with 6 district judges and 10 FPC Legal Advisers and a semi-structured survey of 39 local authority solicitors, 19 parent and child solicitors and 26 Cafcass Family Court Advisers. Additionally, all Forms PLO4 (Revised) and PLO8 from one month of the Pilot were analysed, supplemented with data from the HMCTS Performance, Analysis and Reporting team.
The evaluation found that the pilot has been successful in Greater Manchester in balancing the workload between the levels of court and in securing more robust allocation decisions that are less likely to be challenged, with the expectation of reduced transfer rates following initial allocation
The evaluation found that the process of legal advisers and judges working together has produced real benefits - both in efficient and appropriate allocation decisions and also in learning and improved relationships across and between the tiers of the judiciary. However a clear finding from the evaluation was that the gatekeepers did not view the Form PLO4 (Revised) as useful or a reliable source of information in their allocation decision making, and local authority lawyers found it to be repetitive of other documentation and an arguably unnecessary additional administrative burden.
The evaluation shows variations between local authorities, with some making more accurate allocation proposals than others. Better understanding of the allocation guidelines and process is likely to lead to more consistency. Overall, external stakeholders to the process - local authority solicitors, child and parent solicitors and Cafcass officers generally experienced the pilot as positive and an improvement. They considered that the involvement of a legal adviser and a judge in the allocation decision gave them more confidence in the decision making, with an expectation of reduced delay for children and families.
Recommendation 1: The Manchester Pilot has demonstrated improved balance in allocating levels of work in different tiers of the judiciary and has improved consistency in allocation decision making within the Manchester Pilot process. Thus the gatekeeping and allocation process under the Manchester Pilot has been shown to be ‘fit for purpose' and the roll out of the project nationally is to be welcomed.
Recommendation 2: The monitoring of the Manchester Pilot by a Consultation Group seems to have been effective and the use of local Consultation Groups to monitor the allocation process is recommended as the revised PLO Pilot is rolled out nationally.
Recommendation 3: Consideration should be given as to whether a separate form for the allocation proposal adds value to the gate keeping and allocation process or amounts to unnecessary form-filling by local authorities. A clear requirement to address the allocation Guidelines within a Form C110 may be sufficient.
Recommendation 4: Local authority solicitors in completing the form for the allocation proposal should also, where possible, liaise with the child and parent solicitors as to the proposal for allocation
Recommendation 5: Consideration should be given to a requirement for the Gatekeeping and Allocation Panel to record the reasons why a local authority proposal is not followed.
Recommendation 6: The full allocation decision should be recorded, including level of court and type of judge, in order to enable a complete overview of allocation and workload balance. It is anticipated that that this should be achievable under the revised PLO Pilot and within the proposed Single Family Court.
Recommendation 7: Consideration should be given to implementing a process to record and inform the Gatekeeping and Allocation Panel, Designated Family Judge and the administration when an appeal against allocation has been lodged and the grounds on which it was upheld or dismissed.
Recommendation 8: This evaluation supports the work of the Family Justice Board in seeking to improve the data systems and the quality of performance management information available. This should seek to ensure consistency of data collection and data returns, particularly within forthcoming Single Family Court arrangements, to promote confidence in the system.
Recommendation 9: The Family Justice Board and others to consider commissioning further research to identify the impact on children and families of measures to improve care proceedings.
Recommendation 10: The Family Justice Board and others to consider commissioning further research to identify the impact on the magistracy of measures to ensure appropriate allocation of care proceedings.