In 2014 the family courts were told that care proceedings needed to be completed in 26 weeks.
The drive behind this change was because it was suggested that courts were taking far too long to make decisions about children. It had to happen quicker. Children needed to know where they were to live. Were they to be with their parents? Were they to live with a nominated family member? Or did the court think that ‘nothing else would do’ but adoption.
It is one of the hardest decisions a family court can make and from 2014 the message was they needed to do it quicker.
The Ministry of Justice collate statistics on whether the courts are adhering to the 26 week time limit. The recent figures just issued covering the period April to June of this year show that proceedings are taking on average 33 weeks to conclude, and this is the longest period reported since 2013.
So why are care proceedings taking longer?
Is it the volume of cases which seemingly increase year on year? Is it the over stretched family justice system poorly equipped to keep up with the relentless pace of proceedings? Or could it be that in some cases, getting the outcome right is much more important than the speed of travel?
Child protection professionals became heavily influenced by the 26 week time limit on its implementation and a disproportionate amount of time was spent on that as an influencer in the proceedings rather than welfare outcomes. ‘What was right’ became less important than ‘What do we have the time to achieve?’.
In his keynote address to the Association of Lawyers for Children last November The President of the Family Division pondered on the 26 week conundrum noting
Where, however, the child is to be rehabilitated home, or placed with relatives or friends with whom he or she has not previously lived, the child’s welfare may justify a further period of oversight by the court, within the ongoing care proceedings, rather than the making of a final order simply because, as it were, “the music has stopped” with the expiration of the 26th week
That sort of approach was more common place prior to 2014 and was possibly an unintended consequence of the 26 week time limit for care proceedings being implemented.
As with many things it is about striking the balance so that the correct outcome is reached. It is not in a child’s interests to delay simply for delay’s sake but equally a decision about a child should not be taken in so much haste as it will be the child and not the family justice system that repent at their leisure.