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The right choice? New research identifies impact of shortened care proceedings

Date:17 FEB 2017
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The introduction of the 26 week timetable for care proceedings has halved their average length. Research, led by Professor Judith Masson, provides insight into the impact this is having on the decisions being made on behalf of vulnerable children.

Under the Children and Families Act 2014, new procedures were introduced with the aim of cutting the time it took for family courts to make decisions about whether children needed to be protected from neglect or abuse to 26 weeks, half the time these cases were previously taking.

Researchers at the University of Bristol carried out the first detailed analysis of the working of the procedures, known as the Public Law Outline (PLO), on the decisions made by the courts. These are decisions that have major impacts for children, their families,  for local authorities who work with them and for all professionals who act in care proceedings.

The study involved a detailed examination of the cases of over 300 children filed in 2014-2015 in England and Wales. A summary of key findings indicate that:

  • The aim to reduce the length of proceedings has been achieved, although the 26 week time scale is not always met.
  • Fewer care orders and placement orders were made, and there were more special guardianship and supervision orders.
  • Courts controlled the use of reports from external experts, making better use of the knowledge and expertise of those already working with the families - local authority’s social workers and the children’s guardian.
  • The proportion of cases heard by magistrates reduced from nearly 60 per cent in 2009-10 to only around 20 per cent in 2014-15. 
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This raised some questions:

  • A change in the pattern of orders may mean that more or fewer children got an order that was in their best interests.
  • Views differ about whether lay judges should hear these cases because of the seriousness of the decisions, which can include removing children from parents and approving plans for adoption.
  • A reduction in the number of cases heard by magistrates adds to the pressure on other judges in the family court when there is already acute concern about its ability to handle an ever-increasing number of cases.

At a seminar entitled, 'How is the PLO working?' which took place 31 January 2017, Professor Masson presented key findings from the project with contributions and reflections from:

  • Graham Cole, Chair, Lawyers in Local Government Child Care Lawyers Group
  • Professor Julie Selwyn, University of Bristol, an internationally recognised expert on permanent placement.

The seminar concluded that early completion is important as it saves the parties a further period of anxiety - an average of 6 weeks in the study cases. It also saves court hearing time, a very important factor considering the pressure on the courts.  However:

  • Court resources had to be used well but cases should not be rushed. It was crucial to be realistic about what children needed and whether their needs could be met in their family or in foster care or adoption.
  • Care should not be viewed negatively. Research evidence indicates that children who remain in care are able to achieve and feel cared for. Returning to live with their parents can work out well but arrangements frequently breakdown, particularly where parental drug or alcohol abuse remain.
The second part of the study will examine how the children fared after the end of proceedings, providing more understanding about the effects of shorter proceedings on children’s welfare.

This news release was originally published on the Bristol University website and has been reproduced here with kind permission.