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Madame Le Guillotine and the law of unintended consequences

I was reading Pink Tape today  http://pinktape.co.uk/family-justice-review/i-suppose-i-should-blog-sommat/  and had a horrible moment of self-recognition. I try to avoid introspection wherever possible, because it allows me to maintain my massive inner belief that with a bit of airbrushing I could look like Brad Pitt, and with a bit of extra prep time, I could use honeyed words to charm the very birds out of the trees just like the silks I most admire, but reality crashed through that today, spoiling my internal sense that all must be right with the world whilst I am still a presence in it.

The thrust of Pink Tape was, there’s no point merely grumbling about the FJR and the 26 weeks that is coming at us like the meeting of minds between the prow of the Titanic and the sharp bit of that iceberg (I don’t know, in this analogy which is the iceberg and which the boat – part of me suspects that the huge power of the system for inertia and ignoring the things we don’t like mean that we may well see off the FJR just as we saw off the Protocol and the PLO and those horrid Practice Directions by just agreeing to pretend they don’t exist), but to speak up, lest we find ourselves pinning up that “First they came for the Jews” quotation on our cubicle walls. (Mine, by the way, are in a delicate shade somewhere between mushroom, and fawn)

So, here is my fourpennorth.

The 26 week period to resolve care proceedings, particularly if it is a cap, or guillotine, rather than an aspiration or target, won’t work. (It wouldn’t work if it was an aspiration or target, EITHER, but for different reasons).

I can’t see it surviving contact with the Court of Appeal, and if it does, I certainly can’t see if surviving contact with the ECHR.

Even if you put a new section in the Children Act 1989, that says “Section 1(2) shall now read “In any proceedings in which any question with respect to the upbringing of a child arises, the Court shall ensure that the case is dealt with within 26 weeks of the proceedings being issued save for exceptional cases” , every single case will just be exceptional.

And if you snip out ‘save for exceptional cases’, then what you have is s1(2) of the Act being potentially in conflict with s1(1). And as s1(1) not only comes first, but says expressly that the child’s welfare is the paramount consideration, that will trump the revised s1(2) .

The Court would HAVE to retain the power to decide that in an individual case, the welfare of the child requires that the proceedings continue a little longer.

And if they have that power, they will use it.

And if they use it on Case A, how is it right to fail to use it on Case B, which is the same factual issue? And what about Case C, which is analogous, or Case D, which is quite a bit like Case C (though nothing at all like Case A)

So, I think insisting on having the sharp-cut off Guillotine regardless of welfare is unlawful even if the law is changed (and there’s a huge difference between a general principle that delay is harmful and should be avoided, and removing the discretion to decide whether the harm of delay is outweighed by the children’s best interests and saying “one size fits all”)

And if it isn’t a sharp-cut off Guillotine, it will just be ignored. Just as the major impact of implementing the 40 week target in the Protocol and the PLO was to move the average duration of cases from BELOW 40 weeks to 25% OVER 40 weeks.

 Now, the law of unintended consequences. I’m fairly sure that the Government don’t intend the revised Family Justice system to result in more children being in care, or more children being subject to Care Orders or there being far more applications to Court to be dealt with, but that’s what the law of unintended consequences is all about. Stuff you didn’t mean to bring about when you did something new and clever, but that happens anyway.

Let’s look at a little example.

“Charlie” is the son of a single mother, father off the scene, no suitable family members. “Charlie” is a newborn baby at the time of issue, and his mother has been a heroin user for ten years. The mother gets legal advice at a Letter Before Action meeting pre-birth, and decides to use her best endeavours to quit heroin. The drug tests are ordered at the first hearing. They arrive (let’s be optimistic) by Week 5. They are clean. Obviously, that only shows that she has been abstinent of heroin for a few weeks, and we need more. So let’s have some more drug tests.

Now, we might get a psychiatric report, or we might have the benefit of the ACCEPTED RESEARCH that Justice Ryder has been mooting. 

 I suspect that  you and I have both read enough psychiatric reports to hazard a guess that either of these things will say :-

(a) Mum has a long-standing problem of heroin use

(b) She says she is committed to being abstinent

(c) She would need to be abstinent in order to care for the child

(d) In judging whether the abstinence will last, a year is a good start, and two years is where you would feel really confident.

 So, mum gets the further drug test, at week 18, that’s clean. She has been abstinent for nearly four months and has evidenced that.

 The Local Authority are about to file their evidence. Everything mum has been asked to do within the proceedings, she has done. She achieved abstinence and maintained it. But the timescales for having confidence about abstinence are still eight months away, and six months beyond the point at which our Family Justice Guillotine says “No, stop now and make a final decision”.

The LA (and the Court) have three possible decisions here, none of them palatable :-

(a) Supervision Order with the child at home, and if the progress doesn’t last, bring the case back to Court, with a brand new application (presumably a brand new 26 weeks) and paying the full Court fee [because the Government rejected that recommendation, made by Laming, Plowden and the FJR that Court fees that mean it costs around £5,000 to seek a Care Order be abolished]

(b) Decide that the mother can’t demonstrate that she can maintain abstinence within the child’s timescales (of course she can’t – because she needs a year, and she’s only allowed six months) and that therefore it has to be adoption. [I can already predict that this option is provoking howls of outrage, and I don’t terribly disagree, but it is an unintended consequence for drugs cases that if you don’t give the Court long enough to conclude that the parent CAN do it, they may have to decide that the parent CAN’T]

(c) Care Order with the child at home, with a care plan that provides for the child to remain at home with mother UNLESS she lapses, in which case the child would be removed and a Placement Order application sought.

 [You may remember, that I said none of them were palatable at the outset]

 Let’s make this a little bit more tricky.

 This time, mother has one lapse, and it comes in the second drug test. So at Week 20, the Court has evidence that she has used heroin once, and once only, during the course of the proceedings.

 Which of those three options do they go for now? What happens if mum needs some medical intervention to achieve abstinence in the first place, so she doesn’t actually become abstinent till Week 12? Which of those three options is the Court supposed to go for?

 In short, in reducing the time for drug or alcohol cases to be determined, has the Government decided to give the benefit of the doubt to the parent, or to take a cautious approach and assume that the parent is more likely than not to relapse during the child’s minority, or to have a fudged position resulting in more children being subject to Care Orders?

That looks to me, whichever way you slice it, to be a political decision, but one that hasn’t been actually made or debated because nobody has realised that this has arisen as a byproduct of deciding that taking less time over care proceedings must be a good thing.

 In deciding that children have to have their future determined by week 26, you inadvertently create a huge problem in those cases which CAN ONLY BE TESTED OVER TIME.    If you don’t test over the time it needs, you are going to either guess wrong or end up with a fudged compromise that massively expands the number of LAC children.

And heaven forbid that if this happens to Charlie in Manchester, it has a different outcome than if it happens to Charlie in Dorset.

Let’s assume it isn’t drugs or alcohol. It is an unsuitable partner. It takes till Week 7 to categorically establish (through a super-quick process of gathering all the information about what an unsuitable person X is, and maybe having a fact-finding hearing about what X did to Charlie. ). Charlie’s parent decides at Week 7 to separate from X. By the time the LA are filing their evidence, Charlie’s parent and X have been separated for three months. By the time of the final hearing, four months.

Is the Court supposed to give the parent the benefit of the doubt there, or assume that the separation won’t last (since they aren’t allowed to extend the hearing to test it) or to have a fudged position whereby the LA have the child at home under a Care Order and a plan that has the child removed if the parent reconciles with X?

Now, what if Charlie’s parent is seen with X at Week 20, and says it was a one-off, a blip? What happens then?

My guess would be, that in a perfect case, where the parent is faultless for the full 26 weeks, the case ends with a Supervision Order. And a significant proportion of those will come back to Court having not worked (as we know now, when parents are tested over a much longer period, a significant proportion of rehabilitations sanctioned by LAs and the Courts break down, and the child suffers further significant harm).

 Thus, the number of proceedings will go up. [Law of unintended consequences]

And in a case where the parent has a blip, and the blip is not really, really early on, Care Order with the fudged (some might say inchoate) care plan of ‘remain at home unless you screw up again, then removal’. So, the number of children who are subject to Care Orders will go up. [Law of unintended consequences]

And in a case where there a couple of blips, which might be ironed out by extending the assessment period (but that’s no longer an option) Care Order and Adoption. So the number of children who are subject to Care Orders and need adoptive placements will go up [Law of unintended consequences]

The cases that won’t have their outcomes affected, of course, are the ones where the parent DOESN’T even TRY to quit heroin, or drugs, or the relationship with X.

But I don’t see any analysis in the FJR or Government’s approach as to what proportion of cases fall into the “Concerns then full engagement” “Concerns with good engagement but blips”  “Concerns, attempts to change but quite a few blips” or  “Concerns that the parent doesn’t engage with at all” categories.

In that case, lacking the key data, how can we really plan?

Anecdotally, I have seen a LOT of cases that looked cast-iron as to the outcomes by week 26 (or even earlier). Some of them go exactly the way you call ‘em. Some don’t. And what’s worse, if you exclude the utterly hopeless cases where there’s no effort to change, you can’t even predict which ones will go the way you called them, and which won’t.

I don’t think the 26 week Guillotine will work. From everything I’ve seen, it will be an attempt to put those electric shock paddles onto the PLO, and have people follow it.  Just moving the majority of work that is done in proceedings onto the shoulders of the LA pre-proceedings. That doesn’t reduce delay, just takes it off the Court’s books, and lets everyone wag a finger at the naughty Local Authority.  As a side-benefit, we can compare Local Authorities and hopefully single out some particularly naughty ones.

Also, as we all found out in the really early days of the PLO, there’s no point the LA spending hours and hours doing assessments if when the case gets to Court the parents immediately ask for a second opinion and the Court grants the request.

Here’s a question about whether there should be a shift in focus which is a political decision, and ought genuinely to be made as a political decision rather than an administrative one.

Where the Court finds that a child has suffered significant harm, ought the focus of the rest of the proceedings be on the parents CURRENT capacity to provide non-harmful parenting for the child, or on the FUTURE capacity?

Because that’s ultimately where the 26 week approach is taking us. And I’m not going to argue here about whether a CURRENT or FUTURE capacity is a better system – that, it seems to me is a broader question for society. I think we currently (despite what the House of Lords/Supreme Court keep saying) have a system that is built around the hope/expectation that the court process can effect a CHANGE in people. And we try to do that without any actual resources that would effect that change. I suspect that those resources won’t be forthcoming.

 If you want a family justice system that helps parents to make the changes they need to be able to care for their children, then you need the TIME and the SUPPORT for those changes to work.

(We currently have a system that spends a fortune arguing about diagnosis and nothing whatsoever on treatment. It’s like sending someone off to a top Harley Street dermatologist for paid-for advice on how best to remove their unsightly tattoo, and after we get that advice and have paid for it and seen what should be done, instead handing the person a sheet of sandpaper – and maybe an aspirin – and telling them to get on with it)

 Do we want to try to keep as many children as possible with parents, or do we want to try to ensure that as few children as possible drift whilst we wait for decisions?  Either is a legitimate aim of a Family Justice system, but it would be nice to decide, before working out the nuts and bolts, what the actual aim is. (Because the fake aim of ‘both’ is just as feeble as those people and politicians who agree that we need to make significant cuts in spending, but not on any areas that would be unpopular. In the words of Billy the Kid  “Speed’s good, son, but accuracy’s final”)

You might need to throw an awful lot of money to have a system that not only aspires to bring about CHANGE in parents, but actually has the ability to realistically do it, but it might equally save an awful lot of money in the long-term. How many neglect cases do we see where one of the root causes of the neglect is the neglectful parenting that the parent themselves received as a child? So, if you fix the parent, you solve problems in the next generation. Problem being, for politicians, solving problems for two or three Parliaments down the line isn’t a vote-winner.

 Rant over.

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About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

3 responses

  1. Excellent post. I agree completely that the 26 week cut off will end up being as toothless as the PLO and all other exhortations to do it all faster and for less money. But I hadn’t seen until reading your post the inevitability of focusing more on current rather than future capacity of birth parents. The other issue will be for kinship carers, won’t it? Even if you hold an FGC within milliseconds of te first hearing (and when does that ever happen) most relatives are reluctant to put themselves forward until things are going badly for the parents… Then there’s the viability plus 12 weeks for the full kinship. Chances of having a completed kinship assessment let alone an SGO report within 26 weeks are nil. Chances of all that caselaw allowing delays for further assessment of relatives being usurped by an artificial timelimit which would conflict with Arts 8 and 6? About the same I reckon.

    • Hi Alison, yes, I think there are real issues here of simply not having the time to deliver a fair outcome for the child. I think most of us would agree that there needs to be a way to deliver a fair outcome quicker, but this six month figure seems to be plucked out of thin air, with nobody involved actually working out how a care case needs to operate. There’s some very worrying suggestions abroad that the whole 26 week target without the tools to deliver it is intended to fail, so that the path is cleared for a tribunal system. No doubt run by private enterprise, creaming off a profit.

      Welcome to the blog, and thanks very much for your comments, much appreciated.

  2. Pingback: Kamikaze – you’re all thinking it, but I’ll say it out loud : pinktape.co.uk

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