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Government launches first major review of child care proceedings

20 May 2006

The government has announced the launch of a thorough review of child care proceedings after a report by the Oxford University-based Centre for Family Law and Policy highlighted serious deficiencies in the current processes.

The report, prepared by a research team led by Dr Julia Brophy, was commissioned in July 2005 by Lord Falconer under the Fairer Deal for Legal Aid initiative and was the first systematic large-scale survey on the application of s 31 of the Children Act 1989.

The government’s recommendations are contained in its follow up report, "Review of the Child Care Proceedings System in England and Wales", which advocates a simpler approach to communications with parents, addressing issues at an earlier non-contentious stage, greater use of mediated solutions and, where cases do go to court, an improved judicial process.

Unveiling the proposals, the Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman said: "Too often avoidable delays occur in the court because applications have not been prepared properly, or because there is weak case management during court proceedings."

Resolution, the former Solicitors Family Law Association, welcomed the announcement. A statement released by the organisation said: "early and simple communication with parents and carers about the concerns that local authorities have about the care of vulnerable children will help identify the issues of concern to social workers at an early stage and may help to resolve those issues at an early stage."

Court proceedings represented the most significant cost factor and caused the greatest delays. Application for care proceedings under s 31 cost £25,000 each, 60 per cent of which is absorbed by legal funding, and the overall costs have increased twice as much as the number of cases between 2000 and 2004. The government hopes that by setting up a system which encourages early settlement, these costs will be cut down and all those concerned will benefit.

On the human aspect of court proceedings, the majority of parents surveyed by the research team had a favourable opinion of judges, particularly those who engaged with them directly, but few parents appeared to have an understanding of the judicial process. Many associated family proceedings with criminal proceedings and found it "a frightening experience". Such adverse findings constituted the bulk of the report, which the government has now pledged to assess with a view to issuing new guidance under the Children Act 1989.

Beyond the social issues, such as the fact that 61 per cent of the parents said they could not control their children and that 50 per cent were on housing benefits, the report underlined other critical flaws in the process. Applications by local authorities were poorly drafted and filed late, experts were not involved sufficiently early in the process and second opinions were rarely sought, and many cases are badly managed.

The report also contained positive findings. These ranged from greater openness and transparency, to the use of directions hearings, which gave the judge greater control over the proceedings and often led to the resolution of the case without it going to full hearing.

The government will now consult on the report and has set up a cross-ministerial working group made of representatives of the DoH and of the DWP who will issue new best practice guidelines for local authorities.

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