RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Public Law Outline

Historical amputations and lessons

 

Warning, yet again this blog post contains testicles – like the last one (and no doubt, some critics would say, most of them so far have been b******s throughout)

 

In the early days of surgical procedure, one man stood as a giant amongst his fellow professionals. Liston, often called “The Fastest Knife in the West End”.  In those days, prior to anaesthetics, the priority was to get the job done quickly, to get the ordeal over with as soon as possible and hopefully leave the patient alive.  One of Liston’s specialities was limb amputation, and he was well reknowned for being able to remove a limb in less than two and a half minutes. Of course, during one of his lightening fast amputations he took the patients testicles along with the leg. On another, it is said that he was sawing and cutting so fast that he took his assistant’s fingers off in the process, and also accidentally cut a nearby spectator. As the patient, spectator, and assistant ALL died of their wounds, this is said to be the least successful operation in history, having had a 300% death rate.

BUT overall , the death rate in Liston’s procedures was 1 in 10, as opposed to the usual 1 in 4.  And of course, Liston left medicine with one of the biggest advances ever, being the man who introduced anaesthesia to British medicine and gave it world-wide credibility (the chloroform he used was in practice in America, but Liston popularised its use).  Ironically of course, this made his lightening fast surgical skills rather redundant, as for the first time a surgeon could work with care and precision without risking the patient’s life.

 

It occurs to me, therefore, and this little vignette seemed a decent illustration of it, that speed isn’t always the best measure of something, and that being faster and faster for the sake of it doesn’t necessarily achieve the best results. The Family Justice Review looked very carefully and thoughtfully at how we could make care proceedings more efficient – meaning both faster and less costly, taking as an unspoken premise that our system was already getting good results and what we had to do now was just get them quicker and cheaper.  We already had the leg amputation techniques down pat, we just needed to get more efficient at it.

As has been evident to me from writing this blog, and thrown into even sharper focus with the furore about the decision of the President in Re J 2013, there’s a counter opinion to that unspoken premise. There are plenty of voices saying that actually, we aren’t currently getting the core function of family justice (to achieve the right and fair outcome in cases) and that speeding up the process isn’t going to put that right.

Now, I happen to believe that in the overwhelming majority of cases, if one looked at them independently, they would be achieving the right and fair outcomes. One can’t realistically expect a parent who loses their child to feel anything other than hurt and aggrieved and devastated. You’re not ever going to reach a system whereby every parent nods at the end of the case and says “Yeah, that was a fair cop”, but are those who speak out about the system just parents who haven’t come to terms with an awful and painful (but objectively fair decision) or are they actually as they report, the victims of injustice? Are even some of them?

 

I don’t mean do social workers sometimes make mistakes? Of course they do. All professions make mistakes. I mean, do we have confidence that the system we have in place – which gives the parents the chance to see the evidence against them down on paper, to see all relevant records, to have free legal advice, to question witnesses who accuse them of things, to call their own witnesses to support them, and all of that being determined by a Court who are unbiased and fair and start from the principle that children ought to be at home with parents if at all posible – does that system, catch the times when social workers have got it wrong, have come to a conclusion that might not be the best for the child?

I personally believe and hope that our system does that, but it doesn’t really matter what I believe and hope. We deal in evidence.  When the State is given power by the Government, to make recommendations about whether children should live with families, or be adopted, and where the Court is given power by the Government to make the decisions about whether those recommendations are correct; we need to remind ourselves that those powers are exercised in the name of the public, and it is therefore essential that the public have confidence that a system is in place that whilst individual errors might sneak through from time to time, is not inherently flawed or failing.

 

This is a debate which needs to take place. Not just ‘how can we do it cheaper, how can we do it faster’   – but is the system strong enough to get things right and learn from those cases where mistakes are made?  It was very easy in Re J to allow criticism of social workers to take place in the public domain, but did the Court really “own” their own decision-making? That child was removed, and remained in foster care because the Court decided so. The LA ask for the orders, but the Court decide whether or not to make them. If there’s blame there  (and we really don’t know about Re J, because no information about the case is in the public domain) part of that blame rests with the Court too.

With that in mind, I can see why the President is in favour of greater transparency, both in his plans to publish anonymised judgments as a matter of routine and in the RE J case of allowing criticisms of the system in language that might seem emotionally loaded to remain in the public domain (so long as the identity of the child remains secret). In doing so, an awful lot changes, and as yet, we don’t know how much will change and in what ways. As the ruler of China said about his thoughts on the French Revolution “It is too early to say”

 

With these changes, the 26 week timetable, the financial pressure on family law solicitors and the prospect of more and more advice deserts spreading across the country, these are watershed moments for family justice.  I’ve seen in a relatively short few years, cases move from the occasional parent being a heavy cannabis smoker to large proportions of cases being about heroin and crack addiction; I’ve seen the internet move from dial-up and “Page not found” – effectively a slower form of Ceefax, to becoming a fixture in most people’s lives, somewhere that can make publishers, documentary makers, journalists of almost anyone who chooses to be one. The times, they are a changing.

“The peril of Auntie Beryl”

As the 26 week time limit comes upon us (being introduced by Parliament, the President’s revised PLO guidance and behind the scenes pressure on Courts and Local Authorities via the “Stick of Statistics” TM   - not necessarily in that order), I have been musing about the elephant in the room, of what happens when late in the proceedings, the Court is presented with a suitable relative, Auntie Beryl.

 For what it is worth, I think delays in court proceedings are caused by one or more of these things :-

 (a)   Parties (including the LA) being late in filing documents and this having a domino effect

(b)   The expert report being late, and the whole carefully built timetable collapses round people’s ears

(c)   There is a material change in circumstances  (an unexpected dad emerges, or a relationship ends or begins, or someone you thought was going to be fine relapses into drug misuse, or falls pregnant, or has some sort of unpredictable illness or disease)

(d)   A relative comes forward at the eleventh hour and has to be assessed

(e)   The evidence is all ready, but the combination of accommodating social worker, Guardian, expert and more importantly Court time, means that you have to wait 3 months for a hearing

 I think the intention of the revised PLO  (which you can find here http://www.adcs.org.uk/news/revisedplo.html  )   is to try, as much as one can, to eliminate (a) and (b), and the hope is clearly that if you have much crisper and tighter and fewer Court hearings, there will be less backlog and more judicial availability for (e)    – though it would have been nice to see something spelling out exactly what the Court service is going to do about (e)  – save for having Listings offices run by Capita…

 (c )  is probably the stuff that ends up coming into the bracket of exceptional cases that get an extension to the 26 week limit, or at least where this is actively considered.

 So that leaves the elephant in the room, where it looks as though a child MIGHT be able to be placed with a family member, but doing that assessment will take the proceedings outside of the 26 weeks, because the family member has been put forward late on.

 I suspect, and am already seeing this, that the Courts will try to tackle this by very robust directions at early Court hearings, along these lines :-

“The parents shall, by no later than                       , identify in writing to the Local Authority (to be copied to all parties) the names and contact details of any person that they put forward as a potential permanent carer of the child. Any person put forward after that date will ONLY be considered with the leave of the Court and the parent would need to apply to Court for leave for such assessment evidence to be filed and would need to provide VERY cogent reasons as to why they were not put forward within the deadline period set out in this paragraph”

 

 That looks pretty strong, and will no doubt be backed up by the Court leaning forward and stressing to the parents just how important it is to focus their minds right NOW on who might be able to care for the children, if the assessments of them are not positive.

 But, human nature being what it is, at some point, lawyers and parents and Judges will be faced with an Auntie Beryl coming forward at week 18 or 19, when the LA have announced that they won’t be rehabilitating to parents and will be seeking an adoptive placement. Auntie Beryl, on the face of it, seems like she might be suitable – she doesn’t have any convictions, or history of children being removed, or any major health issues, she has a house in which the child could live, and so forth. So there is a positive viability assessment, but still a lot to be done – more than could be done in the time we have left.

 The six million dollar question, which the Court of Appeal will be grappling with pretty quickly after the revised PLO comes into force I suspect, is

 When a parent puts forward a family member late, and the assessment of that family member would push the case outside 26 weeks, what does the Court do?

 

The immediate “26 weeks or bust” approach suggests that the Court will say, “too late, you had your chance, you had the stern warning on day 12 to cough up the names, you can’t leave it until the assessments are in and the LA are talking about adoption”

 So, what happens if they do that?

 For these purposes, we will assume that the assessment of the parents is negative (since if it were positive, there would be no need to delay matters to assess Auntie Beryl) and that we are dealing with a child under six.

 The alternative care plan is therefore adoption. 

Can an application for a Placement Order be made when there is a viable carer who has not been assessed?

 

The Local Authority have a duty, pursuant to section 22(6) of the Children Act 1989

 s22 (6)  Subject to any regulations made by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this subsection, any local authority looking after a child shall make arrangements to enable him to live with—

 (a)  a person falling within subsection(4); or

 (b)  a relative, friend or other person connected with him,

unless that would not be reasonably practicable or consistent with his welfare.

 

The LA can’t, it seems to me, determine that placement with Auntie Beryl isn’t consistent with the child’s welfare if all they have is a positive viability assessment, they have to go on to do something more, EVEN IF the Court has made a Care Order.

 Before the adoption agency can decide that adoption is the plan for the child, and thus make the application for a Placement Order, they have this duty under the Adoption and Children Act 2002

 Section 1 Considerations applying to the exercise of powers

 (4)The court or adoption agency must have regard to the following matters (among others)—

 (f)the relationship which the child has with relatives, and with any other person in relation to whom the court or agency considers the relationship to be relevant, including—

(i)the likelihood of any such relationship continuing and the value to the child of its doing so,

(ii)the ability and willingness of any of the child’s relatives, or of any such person, to provide the child with a secure environment in which the child can develop, and otherwise to meet the child’s needs,

(iii)the wishes and feelings of any of the child’s relatives, or of any such person, regarding the child.

 

And again, how can the adoption agency decide that Auntie Beryl can’t provide the child with a secure environment if all they have is a positive viability assessment? They have to have a full assessment.

 Thus, even if the Court determined that they were not going to allow time for Auntie Beryl to be assessed, because she has come late into the proceedings, that won’t allow the LA to simply discount her and issue a Placement Order application.

 Unless they have done sufficient to satisfy themselves that Auntie Beryl is NOT suitable, they can’t commit to a plan of adoption and no such plan could be put before the Court. Neither can they commit to “Placement with Auntie Beryl” until they have sufficient information to be satisfied that this has good prospects of success.

 Therefore, the Court cannot have a hearing by week 26 at which a Placement Order could be made.

 

 If the Court can’t consider a Placement Order application, what can it do?

 

The Court would be left, I think, with these three options :-

1. Taking the information that is available about Auntie Beryl and taking a punt on her, by making a Residence Order (or an SGO – but bear in mind that the Court cannot make a Special Guardianship Order without a Special Guardianship report   – and the Court won’t have one of those between week 18 and 26    RE S (A CHILD) NO.2 (2007) [2007] EWCA Civ 90 )

 

2. Adjourning the proceedings in order for a Special Guardianship report to be filed and served, which will push the proceedings outside of 26 weeks.  

 

3. Determining that the Court is in a position to make a Care Order, with the care plan being that the Local Authority will assess Auntie Beryl and the child will remain in foster care pending that assessment.

 

[And of course option 4 of placement with parents, but we are dealing here with those cases where the Court has the material to determine the issue of rehabilitation to parents, since in those cases Auntie Beryl isn’t important]

 

My concern is that option 3, in a post PLO world (and more importantly a world where the Judges know that their performance on timescales is being gathered and measured), becomes superficially attractive. The case concludes, it concludes in time, the Care Order is made, and Auntie Beryl becomes the Local Authority’s problem.

 Of course, it doesn’t actually resolve the future for the child, or end the proceedings with the parents knowing what will happen, and it almost invariably will lead to satellite litigation   (either the assessment of Auntie Beryl is positive, whereupon the LA will want to shed the Care Order and get an SGO or residence order made, OR it is negative, in which case the LA will put the case before their Agency Decision Maker and in due course make an application for a Placement Order)

 The only advantage option 3 has over option 2 is determining the proceedings within a 26 week timetable. There might have to be a judgment that works hard to say that the no delay principle is more important than the no order principle  – but that isn’t the only problem.

 

Get your inchoate, you’ve pulled

 

Is a care plan which at heart is “either this child will be placed with a family member OR adopted, and we don’t yet know which”  actually a legitimate care plan? Is it in fact, an inchoate care plan?

 Inchoate care plans are bad, m’kay? Not good for the Court to hand over the keys to that sparkling vintage E-type Jag to the Local Authority without having a clear idea of where they intend to drive it.

It seems so to me, even on the new Children and Families Bill reworking of care plans as being  “don’t sweat the small stuff”    model

 Section 15 of the draft Children and Families Bill

 

(1) For section 31(3A) of the Children Act 1989 (no care order to be made until court has considered section 31A care plan) substitute—

“(3A) A court deciding whether to make a care order—

(a) is required to consider the permanence provisions of the section  31A plan for the child concerned, but

(b) is not required to consider the remainder of the section 31A  plan, subject to section 34(11).

(3B) For the purposes of subsection (3A), the permanence provisions of a section 31A plan are such of the plan’s provisions setting out the long- term plan for the upbringing of the child concerned as provide for any of the following—

(a) the child to live with any parent of the child’s or with any other  member of, or any friend of, the child’s family;

(b) adoption;

(c) long-term care not within paragraph (a) or (b).

 

And it does not seem to me that even with that more limited scrutiny, a care plan which doesn’t identify whether the plan for the child is to live with a family member or in an adoptive parent, is sufficiently clear.

 Let’s see what the law says about inchoate care plans (underlining mine) and from Re S and others 2002:-

 99. Despite all the inevitable uncertainties, when deciding whether to make a care order the court should normally have before it a care plan which is sufficiently firm and particularised for all concerned to have a reasonably clear picture of the likely way ahead for the child for the foreseeable future. The degree of firmness to be expected, as well as the amount of detail in the plan, will vary from case to case depending on how far the local authority can foresee what will be best for the child at that time. This is necessarily so. But making a care order is always a serious interference in the lives of the child and his parents. Although article 8 contains no explicit procedural requirements, the decision making process leading to a care order must be fair and such as to afford due respect to the interests safeguarded by article 8: seeTP and KM v United Kingdom [2001] 2 FLR 549, 569, paragraph 72. If the parents and the child’s guardian are to have a fair and adequate opportunity to make representations to the court on whether a care order should be made, the care plan must be appropriately specific.

    100. Cases vary so widely that it is impossible to be more precise about the test to be applied by a court when deciding whether to continue interim relief rather than proceed to make a care order. It would be foolish to attempt to be more precise. One further general point may be noted. When postponing a decision on whether to make a care order a court will need to have in mind the general statutory principle that any delay in determining issues relating to a child’s upbringing is likely to prejudice the child’s welfare: section 1(2) of the Children Act.

    101. In the Court of Appeal Thorpe LJ, at paragraph 29, expressed the view that in certain circumstances the judge at the trial should have a ‘wider discretion’ to make an interim care order: ‘where the care plan seems inchoate or where the passage of a relatively brief period seems bound to see the fulfilment of some event or process vital to planning and deciding the future’. In an appropriate case, a judge must be free to defer making a care order until he is satisfied that the way ahead ‘is no longer obscured by an uncertainty that is neither inevitable nor chronic’.

    102. As I see it, the analysis I have set out above adheres faithfully to the scheme of the Children Act and conforms to the procedural requirements of article 8 of the Convention. At the same time it affords trial judges the degree of flexibility Thorpe LJ is rightly concerned they should have. Whether this represents a small shift in emphasis from the existing case law may be a moot point. What is more important is that, in the words of Wall J in Re J, the court must always maintain a proper balance between the need to satisfy itself about the appropriateness of the care plan and the avoidance of ‘over-zealous investigation into matters which are properly within the administrative discretion of the local authority’. This balance is a matter for the good sense of the tribunal, assisted by the advocates appearing before it: see [1994] 1 FLR 253, 262.

 

 It seems very clear to me, that waiting for the assessment of Auntie Beryl removes that obscurity and uncertainty in the case, and that this uncertainty is NEITHER inevitable or chronic – it can be resolved by making a direction for the filing of the report.

So, the revised PLO doesn’t erode this, nor would the introduction of the Children and Families Bill as currently drafted – the Court still have a duty to look at the ‘placement’ aspect of care plans, and it appears very strongly that a care plan that is “either Auntie Beryl OR adoption” is inchoate.

 Well that’s fine, we can just overturn the decision about inchoate care plans, and say that it is fine to have “either or” care plans.  Just let’s not worry about inchoate care plans anymore, we’ll just airbrush the whole concept out. The slight stumbling block there is that the passages above are from the House of Lords, and thus it isn’t open to lower Courts to overturn it.

 Oh-kay, so we are just going to interpret Re S very widely, to mean that a Court can and should think about whether it is right to make a Care Order rather than an interim care order where the care plan is inchoate, BUT it is not a prohibition on making a Care Order where the plan is inchoate, they don’t go that far.

 And, you know, before Re S, the former President (Wall LJ) had made Care Orders in a case where he declared the care plans to be inchoate but still decided that making care orders was the right course of action RE R (MINORS) (CARE PROCEEDINGS: CARE PLAN) (1993) [1994] 2 FCR 136 

 

Although that predates Re S, it was specifically referred to by the House of Lords (though they call it Re J, it is the same case) and endorsed, so it is good law for the proposition that a Court is not BARRED from making a Care Order with an inchoate care plan.   [Or is it? The House of Lords seem to draw a slight distinction between inchoate care plans, and care plans where the future is not certain because there are things which can only be resolved after the care order is made]

 

This is what the House of Lords say about Re R/Re J

 

  97. Frequently the case is on the other side of this somewhat imprecise line. Frequently the uncertainties involved in a care plan will have to be worked out after a care order has been made and while the plan is being implemented. This was so in the case which is the locus classicus on this subject: In re J (Minors)(Care: Care Plan) [1994] 1 FLR 253. There the care plan envisaged placing the children in short-term foster placements for up to a year. Then a final decision would be made on whether to place the children permanently away from the mother. Rehabilitation was not ruled out if the mother showed herself amenable to treatment. Wall J said, at page 265:

‘there are cases (of which this is one) in which the action which requires to be taken in the interests of children necessarily involves steps into the unknown … provided the court is satisfied that the local authority is alert to the difficulties which may arise in the execution of the care plan, the function of the court is not to seek to oversee the plan but to entrust its execution to the local authority.’

In that case the uncertain outcome of the treatment was a matter to be worked out after a care order was made, not before.

 I suspect there may be dancing on the head of a pin to try to make ‘auntie beryl cases’ the Re J style of uncertainty, rather than the Re W style of uncertainty that is neither inevitable nor chronic.

It seems then, that it is POSSIBLE for a Court to make a Care Order, even where the care plan is “either Auntie Beryl OR adoption”  and even though it achieves nothing of value for the child  (since the uncertainty is there, the timing of the assessment and any applications will be no longer controlled by the Court, there will be the inevitable delay of reissuing and listing for the second wave of litigation  – whether that be for SGO or Placement Order application.

 But even more importantly, and from an article 6 point of view – how certain is the Court that the parents  (who would be represented and able to challenge the making of SGO or Placement Orders if the care proceedings continued, under their existing certificates) would get public funding in “stand-alone” applications for an SGO or a Placement Order?

 My reading of the Funding Code  (and I am not a “legal aid” lawyer) suggests that it might well not be a “non-means, non-merits” certificate for a parent faced with an application for Special Guardianship or Placement Order that is a “stand alone” application, rather than one taking place within ongoing care proceedings  -where the public funding, or “legal aid”  is covered by non-means non-merits certificates  – for the uninitiated, “non-means, non-merits” means that a person gets free legal representation in care proceedings by virtue of the sort of proceedings they are NOT based on what money they have (means) or the chances of them being successful (merits) 

 Again, underlining to assist with clarity, mine

 

20.28 Other Public Law Children Cases

1. Other public law children cases are defined in s.2.2 of the Funding Code Criteria. The definition of these proceedings excludes Special Children Act Proceedings and related proceedings. The fact that proceedings involve a local authority and concern the welfare of children will not, of itself justify the grant of Legal Representation. The Standard Criteria and General Funding Code (as varied by s.11 of the Code and including criterion 5.4.5) will apply. The proceedings include:

a) appeals (whether against interim or final orders) made in Special Children Act Proceedings;

b) representation for parties or potential parties to public law Children Act proceedings who do not come within the definition of Special Children Act proceedings in section 2.2 of the Funding Code – this includes a local authority application to extend a supervision order (which is made under Sch.3 of the Children Act 1989);

c)other proceedings under Pt IV or V of the Children Act 1989 (Care and Supervision and Protection of Children);

d) adoption proceedings (including applications for placement orders, unless in the particular circumstances they are related proceedings); and

e) proceedings under the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court in relation to children.

 

(d) seems to me to cover stand alone Placement Order applications, and they would be a matter for the discretion of the Legal Aid Agency  (oh, also, they wouldn’t be a devolved powers application, where the lawyer can just say “yes” and get on with it, it would need to be a full-blown application and waiting for the Legal Aid Agency to say yes or no)

 

Special Guardianship orders as stand-alone would be classed now as private law proceedings, and I think you can guess how the parents funding on that would go

 20.36 A special guardianship order is a private law order and the principles in s.1 of the Children Act 1989 will apply as will the Funding Code criteria in 11.11. This includes the no order principle which will be taken into account when considering prospects of success. Regard will also be had to the report of the local authority prepared in accordance with s.14A of the Children Act 1989 when considering an application for funding. When considering an application for funding to oppose the making of a special guardianship order, the way in which the proposed respondent currently exercises their parental responsibility and how this will be affected by the making of an order will also be considered.

 

 To quickly sum up then :-

 (a ) Declining to extend the timetable to assess Auntie Beryl won’t let the Court go on to determine a Placement Order application

(b) The Local Authority would be legally obliged to assess Auntie Beryl before they could even ask their Agency Decision Maker to make a decision about adoption

(c)  Making a care order with a care plan of “Auntie Beryl OR adoption” is almost certainly inchoate

(d) It almost certainly opens the door to parents to challenge that decision, given what the House of Lords say about inchoate care plans and  specifically “If the parents and the child’s guardian are to have a fair and adequate opportunity to make representations to the court on whether a care order should be made, the care plan must be appropriately specific.”

 

(e) There seems to be a very foreseeable chance that if the Court make the Care Order, the parents may not get the public funding to be represented to subsequently challenge or test any application for SGO or Placement Order, funding that they would have had as of right if the Court had made Interim Care Orders and had the assessment of Auntie Beryl before considering those orders  

 (f) There must be scope for an article 6 claim that losing the ability to be legally represented to challenge whether your child might be adopted PURELY so that the Court could make a care order (on an inchoate care plan) just to satisfy the 26 week criteria is, you know, slightly unfair.

 (g)     Changing this so that it is workable only requires changes to  – a House of Lords decision,  two pieces of Primary legislation (maybe 3, if you just want to allow Courts to make SGOS in cases where they feel it is right without having a full blown SGO report), the private law funding code and the public law funding code. 

 So, job’s a good un.

 [If you are representing someone in a case where the Auntie Beryl issue crops up, “you’re welcome!”  I think the answer for the Court is to identify what issues it would need the LA to deal with in a report on the carer and to get this done as swiftly as is fair and reasonable]

 

View from the President 2 : Into Darkness ?

The President of the Family Division has published his second bulletin/speech/rallying cry/let’s get ready to rumble.

This is backing up a lot of what is rumoured to be in the new PLO and represents a significant shift in judicial mindset from the current practice. Less paper, more analysis, is the “too long, didn’t read” summary

 

It is an important precursor to the PLO and is worth reading in full

 

http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/Resources/JCO/Documents/Reports/pfd-process-reform-revised-plo-may-2013.pdf

 

 

It confirms that the thinking is for a CMC on day 12  (I’ve already written about what that would mean for any parent solicitor seeking an expert assessment)

 

It confirms the thinking that we would basically have three lots of material – that filed in the Court bundle  (slimmed down, almost to ring binder status), a set of primary disclosure which is given to the parties and choice bits might find their way into the Court bundle but it doesn’t go to the Judge until that sifting process is done, and effectively a list of unused material which the parties may seek discovery of.

 

This reinforces really that counsel who will be running the case on behalf of the parents needs to be involved throughout – it won’t be any good someone sitting down and prepping a five day trial on the Friday before, because it will be too late to realise that there’s something useful in those papers which haven’t been before the Court.  Of course, continuity of counsel is great and very important anyway, but it comes at a price – there has to be some resolution of the conflict between counsel’s availability and when the Court can accommodate hearings, and I’m yet to see a proposal for this.

 

It confirms that the Court don’t want to see any documents that are older than two years   (for my own part, I assume that for that purpose they don’t necessarily mean to exclude thresholds or judgments of previous proceedings, but everything else would go)

 

At the same time, there is a strong imperative to produce documents that are focused and succinct. The social work chronology must contain a succinct summary of the significant dates and events in the child’s life. The threshold statement is to be limited to no more than 2 pages.

 

 

Well…. yes with a but.  If you pick up a file of previous proceedings that was dealt with by someone else, from years ago, or from another local authority, the final determined threshold is a really decent way of seeing what the problems and concerns in the case were – not the allegations, but what was finally determined. A two page one isn’t going to be much use (unless we have to run alongside it an old-fashioned meaningful Guardian’s report which draws together the entire case)

 

We must get away from existing practice. All too often, and partly as a result of previous initiatives, local authorities are filing enormously voluminous materials, which – and this is not their fault – are not merely far too long; too often they are narrative and historical, rather than analytical. I repeat what I have previously said. I want to send out a clear message: local authority materials can be much shorter than hitherto, and they should be more focused on analysis than on history and narrative.

In short, the local authority materials must be succinct and analytical. But they must also of course be evidence based.

I worry there that we are just going to have hour upon hour during final hearings of  ” Well, this isn’t in your statement”      and rightly “My client hasn’t been able to see this in your statement, and therefore hasn’t been able to deal with it before now”

And on the issue of experts

 

 

One of the problems is that in recent years too many social workers have come to feel undervalued, disempowered and deskilled. In part at least this is an unhappy consequence of the way in which care proceedings have come to be dealt with by the courts. If the revised PLO is properly implemented one of its outcomes will, I hope, be to reposition social workers as trusted professionals playing the central role in care proceedings which too often of late has been overshadowed by our unnecessary use of and reliance upon other experts.

Social workers are experts. In just the same way, I might add, CAFCASS officers are experts. In every care case we have at least two experts – a social worker and a guardian – yet we have grown up with a culture of believing that they are not really experts and we therefore need experts with a capital E. The plain fact is that much of the time we do not.

 

 

Social workers may not be experts for the purposes of Part 25 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010, but that does not mean that they are not experts in every other sense of the word. They are, and we must recognise them and treat them as such.

 

 

One assumes that the Court of Appeal  (which has several of the drivers of the family justice modernisation sitting on it) will this time around, back Judges who make robust case management decisions, rather than slap them, which is what brought the PLO and the Protocol to their knees.

 

I’m not so sure – it seems to me that faced with an individual case where rigorous application of the new 26 week principles seem to result in unfairness and prejudice to a child’s chance to be brought up within a family, the Court of Appeal will do what is best for that individual child, rather than the system as a whole. That’s what they are charged to do, and it seems to me proper that they do that.  It will depend, of course, on the detail and flavour of the first cases that come before them on   :-

 

(i)                 I was refused an expert because it would have gone out of timescales

(ii)               I was refused for my Auntie Beryl (who used to be a foster carer in Croydon) to be assessed, because I didn’t realise it was going to end up with adoption, so I didn’t tell her my child was in care until week 19.

(iii)             The expert said I could parent my child and make the changes if I was given six months of help, but the Court made a Care Order.

 

 

And whether the cases that come before the Court of Appeal are strong on their facts.

[If you are thinking, by the way, that the subtitle to the article is a gratuitous excuse for a Star Trek reference and a chance to put in another picture of Benedict Cumberbath for the benefit of Ms Suesspicious Minds, you would be correct]

benedict

“I’m on the edge, the edge, the edge, the edge…”

The Judith Masson (et al) research on families on the edge of care proceedings is now available 

http://www.bris.ac.uk/law/research/researchpublications/2013/partnershipbylaw.pdf

 It is a long and dense piece of research, but no less interesting for that. As ever with Judith Masson’s research, the paper itself is a lively read and if you wanted to get a real sense of context of the whole system of family justice, it would be a very good starting point.

 It really tackles the “pre-proceedings” element of intervention and working with families, which is going to become more and more important as the new changes come into force.

 Masson highlights how wide-ranging the participation in pre-proceedings work varies across authorities and indeed how wide-ranging the underpinning philosophies and aims of it are, from being a chance to bring about change, to an opportunity for parents to turn away from a course of action or get the help they need, to a recognition that it is fair and ‘right’ for parents to be warned of consequences, right through to it being ‘a mandatory’ step which has to be gotten through.

 

The research also shows how we ended up with this disparity and range of views, given that what happened was a top down imposition of requirements to have a meeting and a letter and to file a record of the meeting, but without there being any guidance or philosophy as to what was to be achieved.

 

The real headline from it is one which most professionals will recognise, that the Courts did not recognise or value pre-proceedings work,

 

 They [Judges}  preferred cases to come direct to court so that they could control what was done, and felt that the pre-proceedings process would only serve to delay cases which would inevitably need to come to court.

These judges were aware that local authorities were discouraged from undertaking assessments in advance of proceedings by court decisions to order further assessments and, particularly, to expect the local authority to contribute, financially, towards these. However, they felt constrained to allow parents to obtain further assessments, so the local authority’s assessment could be tested in a fair hearing; because they felt that local authority social workers’ assessments were not of the required quality and often merely reflected what their managers wanted; and to prevent their decisions being overturned by the Court of Appeal:

 

‘[The process] would work much better if there was a mechanism in court for us to say more robustly than we have in the past: you don’t need another assessment.’ Judge 6

 

‘[I]t’s so much easier to, say, spend £5,000 doing another assessment and the appeal won’t occur.’ Judge 7

 

These judges were not unique in mentioning the spectre of the Court of Appeal (Pearce et al. 2011). Indeed, the former President of the Family Division sent a letter to judges on case management in response to concerns hehad heard about the need to order further reports to avoid criticism of their decisions (Wall 2010).

 

and that as a result of Judges routinely commencing fresh assessments rather than actively considering the existing assessments, there was no real discernible difference in the time it took to conclude care proceedings in cases where there had been active and detailed pre-proceedings work from the ones that were issued with no pre-proceedings work.

 

And when Masson adds the work done pre-proceedings (after a formal meeting with parents and their solicitors) to Court proceedings, then it turns out to take nearly 70 weeks to get a decision for children if you do pre proceedings work, and around 45 if you don’t bother doing any.

 

She highlights this as being a core issue, going to the heart of care proceedings.  Is the purpose of proceedings to explore solutions to the problems of parenting through ‘investigation, assessment and management of change’” (Hunt 1998)  OR is it “to determine matters by assessing the application, in the light of the evidence presented and the parents’ response”

 

I think either course is a valid approach for the State to take, and I would suggest that at the moment, we have currently the former, and may be about to move to the latter.  Personally, I think that there would have been a place for a proper debate about those issues, and it would have been nice for these to be transparent and up front, rather than a fresh approach being sidled in.

 

Masson also touches on the fierce debate about whether the removal of children is “too few, too late”  or “too many, too fast”  – she seems to me to come down more on the former, whilst recognising that much more intervention and support could be provided and properly targeted.

 Regardless of where you stand on those issues – I know many of my readers are on the “too many, too fast” side of things, it is interesting to see someone actually identifying that this is a genuine debate, with value on both sides and that the State really needs to decide what it wants from a child protection system.

 There are some really sound conclusions to the research, I hope some of them get followed   (better funding for parents solicitors so that they can devote the pre proceedings work the time it needs is particularly important)

 I was taken, particularly, with Masson’s comments about how large changes in the family justice system occur. Of course, she approaches this from the viewpoint of an academic and researcher, but it is a perspective I’ve not heard or considered before, and so I wanted to share it with you [underlining is my own, for emphasis]

 Many of the changes to care proceedings practice since the implementation of the Children Act 1989 have been made not as a result of research evidence or interagency consultation but through litigation. The removal of children under interim care orders, the requirements for without notice EPOs and the contact regime where new babies are not in their parents’ care have all been the subject of ‘guidance judgments’. These have imposed standards or procedures which have had major implications for local authorities, the police, carers and children.

The close consideration a judge gives to an individual case gives him or her the detailed knowledge of the factual scenario necessary to make a decision. It is neither designed nor intended to provide a wide understanding of the range of circumstances where similar issues arise. Moreover, in our adversarial system, the information the judge receives is not simply an objective account but is intended to influence the decision. For these reasons, it would be better if judgments which were intended to shape the operation of family justice were subject to review and discussion before they were published.

 

Research has a contribution to make to law reform. Understandings from theoretical work and experience in other jurisdictions can provide some indication about what might work, the problems and limitations etc. Empirical study of the operation of laws and legal procedures can provide knowledge about practice from a range of perspectives including from litigants themselves, countering beliefs based on anecdote, information derived from the unusual cases that feature in law reports, and from the most vocal in the system. It can supplement the limited information available from case management systems and reach parts of the process that such recording cannot reach. Without research evidence it will not be possible for the Family Justice Board to secure major improvements to the family justice system, or know whether many forms of improvement have actually been achieved.

 

 Now, if you’ve been following this blog at all, you’ll have picked up what a caselaw geek I am, but I think this makes a really important point.

 If you take as an example the contact case Masson raises, the decision that our now President made in judicial review case effectively (at least for a period of some years) overnight transformed the amount of contact that babies placed in foster care should have with their parents, and did so dramatically.  And that case, which had massive implications for family after family, child after child, local authority after local authority, was decided without hearing any evidence about what was best for a child, it was just what the Judge at the time, considering that case, felt was best.

 (Now, as we know, the current research on quantum of contact for babies is pretty fraught, and it is a hot potato; but people on both sides of that debate have at least attempted to research and establish whether contact twice a week is better or worse for infants than contact five times a week, rather than determining it on the basis of listening to four adversarial submissions and concluding which is better.  It is quite possible that overall  the lives of children were made much better by the President’s decision, it is quite possible that overall they were made worse, it is possible perhaps even likely that for some children having more contact was good and for some it wasn’t so good, but we had no way of knowing at the time, the whole system had to embark on a sea change in contact regimes as a result of one judicial opinion in one case)

 That gave me some food for thought.

 

 

“It is not down on any map, true places never are”

The DFE Adoption maps and what we can learn from them, if anything

The DFE have published their adoption maps, whilst repeating over and over that these are not a  judgment on local authority performance. Much in the same way that listing all of the countries job centres in tabular form, with those who have achieved the highest number of stopping people’s benefits is not a league table, or an indication that stopping people’s benefits is considered to be a good thing.

 Anyway, I love maps, and I thought there were some interesting things to emerge from them. Plus, the chance for this title, which is probably my favourite line in all literature (it is from Moby Dick, and the nearest competitor is probably Hotspur’s rejoinder to Glendower’s  “I can call spirits from the vasty deep”   – “Why so can I, or so can any man. But do they come when you do call for them?” )

 

Also, it lets me make reference to another of my favourite passages, from The Hunting of the Snark

 He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

 

 carroll-map-thumbnail

 

I’m not sure that the DFE maps constitute a map we can all understand, though there are some who would claim it has as much meaningful content as the map in Hunting of the Snark.  Certainly, if we apply the Bellman from Snark’s rationale that “What I tell you three times is true”  then it is not intended to be a comparison of Local Authority performances    *

 

[And for an excellent analysis of the “What I tell you three times is true” motif,  see this wonderful piece from Inky Fool  -  which tells you the derivation of that annoying habit people have of politely refusing something twice and then accepting it at the third time of asking. It all arose with a polite convention about what you are supposed to do if someone asks you to become a bishop. I wish that I had written it, but as I liked it so much, the least I can do is steer others towards it. If you are ever asked to become a bishop, now you know the polite convention

 

http://blog.inkyfool.com/2010/04/nolo-episcopari-and-rule-of-bellman.html  ]

 

Enough literature, on with the maps!

http://www.education.gov.uk/childrenandyoungpeople/families/adoption/a00219985

 

The main DFE caveat with the maps is that they only include figures for adopters approved by Local Authorities and none by any voluntary adoption agencies.  The main gripe from the Local Authorities is that looking at a map just tells you something bald, and you can’t compare, say Leicestershire and Liverpool without knowing something about the size of population and social problems that each might have.

 

Anyway,  there are several maps, but the one I was most interested in was Map B

http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/m/map%20b%20number%20of%20children%20waiting%20for%20each%20adopter.pdf

Map B does a clever little exercise – for each Local Authority, it takes all of the children in that area who are waiting to be adopted  (i.e where an Adoption Panel / Agency Decision Maker has considered that adoption is the plan and where a Court has made a Placement Order) and compared that to the number of adopters that that Local Authority has approved.

 In an ideal world, you would want 1 adoptive family approved for every child that you are looking to place   (maybe even ideally slightly higher than that, to give you some choice, though of course, some adopters are looking to adopt 2 children).

 

What it tells you is, notionally speaking, if a Local Authority decided that they were going to match every single adoptive family with a child on their books,  whether they would have adopters left over, or children left over. And how many.

 For children waiting to be adopted, this map is bad news. The lowest category, the darkest blue, is where there are 2 or fewer children waiting for each approved adopter.

 The highest category, the yellow, is where there are between 11 and 23 children waiting for each approved adopter.

 Now, whilst some adopters are prepared to adopt two children (and thus the navy blue Local Authorities might be able to clear their children waiting for adoption if they could theoretically match up all the children with all the adopters), there aren’t adopters waiting to adopt eleven or twenty three children.

 

Meaning that if one did that notional exercise, matching every adopter up with as many children as they were prepared to take, the yellow authorities would have barely put a dent in the children needing to be placed (maybe reducing the number of children waiting by 20%, maybe 10%, maybe even less)

 Green authorities have between 6 and 10 children waiting for each approved adopter.

 So, the more yellow and green authorities there are, the worse it is for children waiting to be adopted.

 How many dark blues are there?  I made it about fifty.

 And yellows? I made it about 13, with 19 greens.

 Bear in mind, that what often happens is that one local authority places children for adoption with adopters approved by another local authority. But you can see that even the best authorities don’t have adopters left over (compared to the number of children that need families) and that even spreading out the yellow and green authorities additional families across the country doesn’t solve the problem.

 Nationally, we have far more children needing to be adopted   (* Anticipating the comments, by which I mean children where a Court has heard evidence and argument and decided that adoption is the right plan for them) than there are people approved as adopters.

 Equally, you can see that whilst the Midlands is pretty evenly matched between children needing placements and placements available, the East of the country and the South/South East of the country is pretty bad, with there being no neighbouring counties to raid for adoptive placements, since they are all struggling to meet their own demands.

 It is a shame that the independent adoption agencies figures are not in there, it may well be that those figures would dramatically alter the position.

 It is a worry, however, that the demand for adoptive placements is substantially outstripping the supply of such placements. That leads to delay, of course, it leads to some children not being able to be found placements, and inevitably it needs to a situation where the chance to place difficult children (in large sibling groups, or with profound problems, or with a family background of mental health problems) becomes much harder.

 Perhaps the Government’s ambitious thinking that there are four million potential adopters out there and that more can be converted from potential to actual if the process is made less bureaucratic and terrifying is right, and that the problem can be addressed by better recruitment.

 [There’s a curious little spreadsheet tucked away with some hard data

 http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/xls/a/adoption%20scorecard%20underlying%20data.xls

 I liked looking at the average duration of care proceedings in each authority, given that we are told that 26 weeks will be coming in, and we have been ostensibly working on an average target of 40 weeks for  NINE YEARS now.  Yes, the Protocol, god rest its soul, would have been ten years old this November.

 I counted 11 of the 149 authorities that had an average duration of care proceedings of 40 weeks or under.

 Let’s look at 50 weeks – that being 25% longer than the current target.  I counted NINETY SIX authorities where the average duration of proceedings was 50 weeks or longer.  There were some, not many, but some, that were over 60 weeks  (i.e 50% longer than the current target)   - 18 in all.  

 So actually, there are MORE authorities going 50% OVER the current target than there are going UNDER the current target. After NINE YEARS of pressure to get the duration down to 40 weeks  ]

 

 [A completely irrelevant footnote - as a blogger, I have a spam filter, and I get the most extraordinary spam comments, most of which are thinly disguised links to fake sunglasses or handbags, some are extraordinary Williams Burroughs-esque stream of consciousness masquerading as genuine dialogue. Today, however, I got a spam link from someone purporting to be from a website named "Toddler-hitting.org"   which might really have missed its target audience completely. I did not follow it up, I don't think its likely to be my cup of tea]

Court of appeal sweepstake

Yet more pondering about the 26 week timetable unofficial roll-out a year in advance of the projected Children and Families Bill becoming law, and whether there is a hint in the Family Modernisation second update?

 

 

This continues to trouble me, and I know others. I warned way back in April 2012 that the new Court computer system seemed to have implemented by stealth a presumption that a care case would finish in 26 weeks, and that reasons for not doing so would have to be recorded, and that this was inevitably going to have an impact on the timetabling of cases

 

 

http://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/04/13/gone-till-november-ill-be-gone-till-november/

 

 

 

And here I blogged  back in October about the issue being raised before MacFarlane LJ and Ryder J at the Nagalro conference, and whether or not it was said that there was no such policy of 26 weeks being the starting point and whether a Judge applying such a policy ought to be appealed. We have never got to the bottom of what was really said

 

http://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/10/19/ive-got-twenty-six-weeks-to-go-twenty-six-weeks-to-go-or-have-i/ 

 

 

I am aware that around the country, orders are being made, setting out whether a case should be concluded within 26 weeks or not   [not “This case does not require a 40 week timetable and can be concluded by week 26”, but the reverse “This case has issues that require that the proceedings go beyond week 26”].

 

And they are made at a very early stage of the proceedings.

 

Without a doubt, the Court has the power to determine when a case should be concluded, and set a timetable for the expeditious resolution of the case, and the fixing of that timetable is within the judicial discretion. Robust case management is a vital judicial function, and avoidance of drift and unnecessary delay is a commendable goal.

 

And without a doubt, although the law currently (through the Public Law Outline) works to a timetable of 40 weeks, the Court has the power and discretion to set a timetable that is less than 40 weeks, or indeed more, in accordance with the child’s welfare.

 

What troubles me is the importation of a presumption that the starting point is 26 weeks when there is no law to that effect.

 

 This is not a trivial matter. Decisions about whether pieces of evidence, including independent assessments, can be obtained, are made on the basis of whether they fit with the timetabling of the case, and there is a considerable difference between 26 weeks and 40 weeks  (which is our current ‘starting point’, that can, as I have said, be deviated from)

 

The other pivotal consequence of this is that setting a 26 week timetable as a starting point  (before any of the accompanying measures such as pre-proceedings work being improved and CAFCASS playing a larger role in the early stages of the proceedings have been formulated, never mind implemented) means that a parent simply has far less time to demonstrate change, or to accept the need for change.

 

Those 14 weeks, or 3 ½ months, are a period where the parent could attempt to evidence growth in insight and change, or evidence having tackled the problems. If we remove that, there are going to be cases when a parent who would have made use of it will not have that opportunity.

 

What worries me is NOT deciding the case quicker, it would clearly be better for children to have the decisions made for them promptly and that is in accordance with the often quoted but often ignored principle of no delay enshrined in the Act.  No, it is my underlying fear that cases will end up with different outcomes when they are decided in 26 weeks than if they had run for 40 weeks.

 

 

This is the latest glimmer on it, from the Family Modernisation second update. Bear in mind that this is not a statutory instrument, nor a practice direction, nor guidance, nor anything that could be relied on by law, but it is in a sense a marker.

 

 

http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/Resources/JCO/Documents/Reports/family_implementation_newsletter2.pdf

 

 

This is the passage I am interested in :-

 

One of the key clauses in this Bill is that care or supervision orders should be determined without delay and in any event within 26 weeks beginning with the day on which the application was issued.

 

Although this 26-week time-limit will not be a legal requirement until the Act is enacted (probably in April 2014) the President is keen to encourage those involved in the family justice system to continue to use the interim period before implementation to develop their practices to prepare for commencement. Cases should be managed by judges to reach a just conclusion without unnecessary delay.

 

Courts already have an obligation to timetable each case and the timetable for the child may anticipate proceedings being completed in up to 26 weeks or more dependent on the facts of the case

 

 

I would have preferred this to be far less ambiguous. The first two paragraphs I agree with entirely. The third I find to be unclear  – it doesn’t condemn the practice of setting 26 week timetables a year in advance of this becoming law. It doesn’t say, what one would have hoped, that there is no starting point of 26 weeks, and that whilst it might be appropriate in some cases, the timetabling exercise should not be carried out with that “starting point” in mind.

 

It is nowhere near as strong as the remarks which were reported to have been made by the senior judiciary at the Nagalro conference (though as we know, we shall never really get to the bottom of what precisely was said)

 It is perhaps interesting, and illustrative of the fact that the 26 week target  has indeed been secretly rolled out that the wording is not

Courts already have an obligation to timetable each case and the timetable for the child may anticipate proceedings being completed in 40 weeks or less dependent on the facts of the case

 

but the reverse, that it may be 26 weeks or more.  Is this a tacit endorsement of Courts having in their mind 26 weeks as the goal to aspire to?

Given that we know that the Court computer system is recording the cases that finish beyond 26 weeks and reasons for this, are there performance indicator statistics being gathered from that computer system that shows how many cases ARE going beyond 26 weeks, and have targets been set for what those numbers or proportions should be?   Or am I Marvin the Paranoid Android?

 

We remain in limbo until someone whose client is materially disadvantaged by the mental “starting point” of 26 weeks takes the case management decision to appeal.  We also have, at this stage, no real sense of which way the Court of Appeal will go on that.

 

They could take the strict law approach of 26 weeks being a creature of the imagination and 40 weeks being the starting point set down in actual law, or they could go the judicial discretion, case management powers and avoiding delay approach.

 

 

So, place your bets – will the first appeal be from the North, South, East or West of England, and will the Court of Appeal back the Judge or back the PLO?  The Court of Appeal haven’t shown much love for the PLO to date, but generally in slapping Judges who tried to case manage in accordance with its principles where the Court of Appeal felt that led to unfairness. So on the body of their decisions, my gut is that they should be slapping this 26 week starting point. But I would not put money on it going that way.

 

[I’ll emphasise again for clarity, I see nothing wrong with a Court looking at the individual case and determining that this case should, on the issues and facts, be resolved in 26 weeks, or 19 weeks, or 52 weeks that seems to me to be a perfectly proper judicial decision. 

 

My issue is with an unwritten principle that ‘all things being equal, a care case should finish within 26 weeks, and there would need to be reasons to go beyond that’ when that is not currently the law.  Or even that this is a perception which is being allowed to persist, there not being a clear statement to the contrary. ]

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,607 other followers