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Triborough a little tenderness

 

A dash through the evaluation of the Tri-borough project aimed at completing care proceedings within 26 weeks.

 

This is a valuable assessment, being the first evaluation of how the new PLO 26 week timetable works in the wild  , and you can find it here

 

http://www.uea.ac.uk/ssf/centre-research-child-family/news-and-events/news/2012-13/Triborough

 

The Tri-boroughs are Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster, and they rolled out a plan to achieve the 26 week timetable in care proceedings.

 

Caveat to all of this – I couldn’t find anything that indicated that ALL of the cases in those boroughs were included in the pilot  – clearly if there was an “opt-in to the Pilot” then the findings become less valuable, since it would be simple to ‘weed out’ the cases that appear complex or problematic so that they never went into the pot.  It is also worth noting that over the course of the Pilot, one of the Boroughs had reduced their LAC numbers by 30%, which may have had some influence on volumes of proceedings.

 

Their findings are useful. The first thing to note is that whilst all professionals and the local judiciary were throwing the kitchen sink at finishing these cases within 26 weeks, by the end of the pilot period, as many cases took LONGER than 27 weeks as had finished within 27 weeks.

 

The timescales for concluding proceedings had however gone down massively with the new way of working – although they hadn’t hit the target of 26 weeks in over half the cases, they had cut the average duration of proceedings down from 49 weeks to 27 weeks.  And for the longest running cases – the outliers, they had cut these down by almost half, from 99 weeks to 52 weeks. That is impressive, by any standards.

 

 

I think that these comments from the key summary points are helpful, and worth quoting in full

 

 

The fact that the median length of proceedings is now around 26 weeks means, of course, that half the cases are still taking longer than 26 weeks. This should not necessarily be viewed in a negative light since some case-by-case flexibility about the length of proceedings is surely necessary in the interests of children’s welfare and justice. The pilot demonstrates that some flexibility can coexist with meaningful efforts to bear down on unnecessary court delay.

 

 Proceedings involving a single child were shorter (median 25 weeks) than those involving sibling groups (32 weeks). Proceedings resulting in a care order, with or without a concurrent placement order were shorter (median 20 weeks) than cases resulting in an SGO (26 weeks) or in the child returning or remaining at home on a supervision order, with or without a residence order (29 weeks).

 

A lot of the professionals who were interviewed during the evaluation had been concerned (as am I) that attempting to artificially constrain the duration of proceedings might result in unfairness in individual cases even whilst it might be good for the system overall.  In reality in the pilot, it appears that those cases that NEEDED more time were given it.   That is a scheme that I would be behind, but the fear remains that pressure is being applied based on raw numbers and data to drive the duration down with unfairness in some individual cases being an acceptable collateral damage. I hope this lesson from the Tri-borough pilot is taken on board by The Powers That Might Be Giants, but am slightly doubtful.

 

What also interested me in the summaries above was confirmation that a longer duration of proceedings doesn’t automatically mean a bad thing. One can see that you can finish proceedings more quickly if you get what many would consider to be the WORST option (child adopted by strangers) and it takes the longest time to get the BEST option (child being successfully placed with a parent). I also hope that THIS lesson is taken on board – I am rather more doubtful about that.

 

 

I suggest moving through the report to the graph at figure 2.4.  This shows where at each stage, time savings have been achieved.

 

The time from pre-proceedings to issue was about the same. The time from issue to CMC was about the same. The time from CMC to IRH sped up from 26 weeks to 15 weeks, a big reduction in time.

 

But, look at the next bit – the time from IRH (the hearing at which all the evidence should be ready, and the case can either be concluded, or a final contested hearing take place) to final order  – this reduced from 15 weeks to 5.5 weeks.

 

This is an ODD figure.  Nothing that was going on in the pilot ought to have affected the waiting time between IRH and final hearing.

 

Here are the five possible explanations that my cynical mind has come up with:-

 

 

 

A)   s the figure is an average, the Pilot massively increased the proportion of the cases that concluded at IRH rather than final hearing. But the text discounts that, saying that actually the reverse is true – nearly one in six pilot cases finished at IRH, whereas nearly one in three pre-pilot cases finished at IRH. So it isn’t that.

 

B)   The time estimate for contested final hearings went down, thus giving the Court more hearings in the same time period, and making it quicker to list.  (reducing the waiting time from 15 weeks to 5.5 weeks seems a LOT for this) . The report doesn’t give me the data on duration of final hearings pre-pilot and during the pilot, which might be interesting for that. 

 

C)   Because there were less experts, the Court didn’t have to provide dates which suited that limited expert availability. (Under THIS theory, the Court had previously been offering dates quicker than 15 weeks which had, pre-pilot, been turned down due to not being suitable for the expert, but during the pilot could be made use of)

 

D)    There were additional judicial resources in terms of sitting days in the Tri-boroughs during the pilot. 

 

E)   When deciding the date for the final hearing at IRH, pilot cases were getting priority over non-pilot cases  (that’s my polite way of saying ‘queue jumping’

 

 

I would rather like to know more about this, because the 9.5 week saving here represents quite a big chunk of the 22 week time saving the Pilot had achieved as an average. I genuinely hope that it is as a result of B and C, and not the other factors.

 

One would need to know whether that was replicable across the country (i.e it was done fairly) before one could get excited about it.  Without that saving of time at the back-end, the average duration of care proceedings would be stuck at the 35-38 week point.

 

 

There’s an interview with a family law solicitor that expresses just this point, I think rather well (it isn’t me)

 

Now I am aware that the Ministry of Justice is going through a process of trying to make large savings in terms of judicial sittings and appointment of full-time judges, and I also wonder whether the courts can deliver on making courts available, judges available, to make decisions on time, so that we are not waiting four to five months for court time. Because if we are going to be faced with courts saying, ‘Well from the point of an IRH to when a care final hearing is listed, you have to wait four to five months,’ which is very common in the recent past and is not uncommon now, then any savings you make are just going to fly straight out of the window. You are sitting there everybody with their arms folded, the case beautifully presented and no court available to make the decision. So…it is not just the local authorities, it is also court availability and that seems to me problematic. The thing is we are going to be told I am sure, that with a unified court, that’s going to solved, I am doubtful personally, from what I see day in day out in court….And I fear that courts won’t be able to deliver on this in the year. (Family solicitor, Int 3)

 

And

 

I think where it won’t be sustainable is in the ability of the court to accommodate hearings as quickly as they did. (Local authority solicitor, Int 9)

 

 

Both make me suspicious that the savings on the “Wait from IRH to final hearing” weren’t necessarily achieved by replicable means.

 

Of course, if in the headline Pilot study, where the suspicion exists that extra judicial resources AND priority status was given to listing final hearings, it is pretty worrying that it STILL took 5 ½ weeks from IRH to get a final hearing. Since we know that for run-of-the-mill work, we have six weeks from IRH to find a final hearing…. cough, cough… ooh look everyone, an elephant!

 

 

And the report also touches on the ever present difficulty of Pilot studies, that being part of a Pilot tends to focus and energise people and that knowing whether that could be sustained in a national roll-out.

 

 

The concern then is that the pilot has benefitted from unusually favourable conditions (relatively wealthy boroughs, changes in staffing levels at Cafcass, special treatment in the courts), and that it has required, as we discussed earlier, if not more actual time, then higher than average levels of commitment, effort, focus. We discussed previously the fact that views were surprisingly diverse as to whether the pilot added or subtracted from staff workloads in terms of time but it does seem clear that more effort (also described by participants in terms of being ‘strong’ or ‘robust’ or having ‘energy’) is needed to work in this new way.

 

 

The report also echoes the findings of Masson, that the duration of pre-proceedings work had no positive bearing on the duration of the proceedings. In fact, oddly (and this may just be a quirk of a relatively small sample size), the cases where the formal Pre-Proceedings Protocol was used took slightly longer to conclude than those where it wasn’t. (figure 5.2)

 

One of the fears of the new PLO was that delay would be shifted to pre-proceedings rather than during court proceedings, but the pilot evaluation showed that not only did this not happen, there seemed to be a sharper focus on issuing proceedings at an earlier stage. For cases other than newborns, the time between issue of Letter Before Proceedings and issue of proceedings came down from an average of sixteen weeks to an average of six weeks.  (Figure 5.3)

 

(One might query whether six weeks is long enough for a parent to turn anything around, but clearly this figure isn’t showing that the delay was just moved to pre-proceedings)

 

The time children had spent on child protection plans before proceedings were issued had also come down, quite considerably.

 

Pre-proceedings drift, a major worry for many professionals, does seem to have been avoided by the Tri-boroughs pilot, and for that, if nothing else, there must be some valuable lessons to be learned.

You be frank, I’ll be earnest

 

Another judgment from Mr Justice Baker, who I’m becoming increasingly fond of (although I think his decision about termination of parental responsibility probably will get overturned by the Court of Appeal).

This is Re L and M (Children) 2013

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/1569.html

 

It is, sadly, not a terribly unusual case – unusual in society in general but not in the field I practice in. There were multiple and serious injuries to the child, and the medical opinion as to how these had been caused was at variance with how the parents said the injuries had been caused. The Judge carefully considered all of the evidence, and the judgment is a perfect analysis of the caselaw and the competing factors that the Judge has to consider, not least of course the well-known quotation from Dame Butler-Sloss   “The judge in care proceedings must never forget that today’s medical certainty may be discarded by the next generation of experts or that scientific research would throw a light into corners that are at present dark.” 

 

The findings against the parents, including that they had not been honest in their account, were made by the Judge. So far, so commonplace, but there are two features in the case which lift it, and make it worthy of discussion.

 

Firstly, the judicial approach towards the instruction of experts in the case.  (It will not surprise you to learn that I completely agree with the Judge here, and commend him for saying these things. I have grave doubts that a case like Al Alas Wray would reach the same outcome, were we to try it again next year, because getting to the truth required the Court to be amenable to the instruction of multiple experts and no doubt delays were incurred in getting to the truth, which was that the parents were not responsible for the dreadful injuries and that there was a medical cause, allowing them to be reunited with a child rather than that child being adopted. It is simply, but ghastly, to imagine, how that case would have developed if the Court had simply heard evidence from the (very eminent) treating medical professionals.

We don’t hear, for my mind, enough about Al Alas Wray. We have set off upon a path, in family justice, of child rescue dominating over family preservation, no doubt in part due to the rightful sense that what happened to Baby P should never happen again. But what happened to the Al Alas Wray family ought not to happen to other families, and what could have been far worse (that their child was wrongly permanently separated from them) is equally something to be avoided if at all possible.  It worries me deeply that such cases might slip by us in the future.

    1. At this point, before turning to the parents’ evidence, I mention some points of wider importance that emerged from the medical evidence in this case.

 

    1. As mentioned above, no MRI was carried out on M in August 2011. Dr. Stoodley reminded the court of the recommendation of the Royal College of Radiologists and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (“Standards for Radiological Investigations of Suspected Non-accidental Injury”, March 2008) that an MRI scan should be performed if an initial CT scan of a child is abnormal (para 15.3). He informed the court that there have been a number of recent cases in which such MRI has not been performed in these circumstances. Plainly from a forensic point of view, the absence of an MRI contemporaneous to the other imaging is a lacuna in the evidence. All the experts in this case agreed that an MRI should have been carried out at the time. I recognise, of course, that there may be clinical reasons why the treating physicians choose not to carry out imaging. I also note Mr. Richards’ observation that resources for MR imaging are scarce. I share Dr. Stoodley’s view, however, that “whilst the lack of an MRI scan at the time of M’s acute admission will not have affected her clinical care, an opportunity was potentially lost to gain useful forensic information”. It may therefore be appropriate for the professional bodies to review this issue to establish the extent to which the Royal Colleges’ recommendations are being followed

 

    1. There is, in addition, a more fundamental point of general importance. This case demonstrates yet again the invaluable role played by medical experts in cases of alleged non-accidental injury. There is rightly a renewed scrutiny on the use of experts in family proceedings, and some potent arguments have been advanced against what is perceived as the misuse and overuse of experts. In response, the Family Procedure Rules have been amended so as to impose more stringent regulation of the instruction of experts. Henceforth, under the amended rule 25.1, “expert evidence will be restricted to that which in the opinion of the court is necessary to assist the court to resolve the proceedings”.

 

    1. In difficult cases of non-accidental injury, it will continue to be the case that expert evidence from a variety of disciplines will be necessary to assist the court to resolve the proceedings. In the recent case of Devon CC v EB and others cited above, I observed at para 156

 

“Judges will be rigorous in resisting the call for unnecessary use of experts in family proceedings but equally will not hesitate to endorse the instruction of experts where, under the new rules, they are satisfied that they are necessary for the determination of the issues in proceedings.”

    1. This case provides a further example. The medical picture presented to Judge Marshall created what she thought, and Munby LJ in the CA agreed, was a conundrum. In directing a retrial, Munby LJ, whilst leaving the scope of the retrial to be decided by the judge conducting it, suggested that there should include a more exhaustive search of the literature. The instruction of Dr. Stoodley, a further search of the literature by the experts, and the process of the retrial in which the experts have each made an important contribution, have enabled this court to resolve the conundrum.

 

    1. Court-appointed experts play a vital role in difficult cases of non-accidental injury. As this case demonstrates, it will ordinarily not be sufficient to rely on the opinion of the treating physicians in this type of case. In respect of M’s rib fractures, the court-appointed experts provided insights that would not otherwise have been available to the court. The radiologists who initially reported on the X-rays, but who were not called to give evidence in the hearing, identified evidence further possible ten rib fractures. Neither Dr. Chapman nor Dr. Halliday identified any fractures at these points, and the local authority has not pursued this issue. As Mr. Kirk pointed out in closing submissions, the consequence is that this case looks somewhat different from how it appeared initially to the treating physicians. Had the case been presented purely on the basis of their interpretations, the focus of the court would have been significantly different. In respect of the skull fractures, as both Dr. Stoodley and Mr. Richards recognised, it is possible that in the past lucencies that had been routinely but wrongly diagnosed as fractures in spite of the fact that it was recognised that fissures and other abnormalities existed. Both experts had been involved in a case in which they had diagnosed a fracture but a bone pathologist had identified a traumatised suture. As Mr. Richards said in evidence, “we are beginning to get pathological evidence coming out to make us re-think our thoughts about fissures and fractures in the same way [as] a few years ago we got more evidence about birth causing subdural haemorrhages.” This is another example of how medical opinion about non-accidental head injury is continuing to evolve.

 

  1. This case provides further illustration of the important role of court-instructed experts in these difficult cases where the medical evidence is unusual and therefore outwith the experience of many hospital doctors. In the circumstances, it goes without saying that it is vital that experts of sufficient calibre and experience should continue to be available where the court considers their instruction necessary to resolve the proceedings. In the course of this trial, I have been informed that a number of doctors commonly instructed in these difficult cases are not at present accepting instructions. Any impediment to the instruction of experts in these difficult cases will make it much harder for the court to achieve a just and timely outcome for the child.

 

And secondly, as this was just a finding of fact hearing, there would then be a phase two, where assessments took place as to the future risk of harm that the parents might pose. The Judge reinforced this :

 

    1. I make these findings only after prolonged thought and with regret and reluctance. I know these parents have endured a great deal of hardship over the past few years, in particular the tragic loss of C and now these protracted proceedings leading to these findings. I accept that in many other ways the mother and father have been good parents to L and M. I accept that they are devoted to their children. I accept that they are desperate to care for them again.

 

  1. All children should wherever possible be brought up by their parents. That is as true of L and M as of any other children. I do not regard these findings as the end of the story. All the professionals in the case – the social workers, the guardian and the court – must do what we can to see if L and M can be safely returned to their parents. But the primary responsibility now lies with the parents themselves. I urge them, even at this late stage, to be more frank with the court so that we can all understand what happened to M and work together to ensure that she and her brother are safe in the future.

Nothing terribly new or controversial there, but a warning between the lines about how such cases will be dealt with in our brave new world.

The President has indicated that cases involving non-accidental injuries will only go beyond the 26 week limit in exceptional cases, and the mere fact of a finding of fact hearing being required won’t be sufficient to warrant a delay. Well, that’s all well and good, but what it will mean in practice is that where now, these parents would have something like a 10-14 week period to reflect on the judicial findings, perhaps accept them, perhaps partially move towards them, perhaps put some practical or therapeutic arrangements in place, they will from autumn of this year, probably get a 2-3 week period to do so.  The consequence of findings in a case like this, might be that a mother and father need to separate from one another, and it seems to me inhumane to expect them to make decisions of such gravity so quickly. Additionally, that assessment of future risk would probably have been undertaken by an independent expert, whereas from autumn of this year, it almost certainly will be undertaken by the social worker, who just 2-3 weeks earlier was effectively prosecuting those findings. It isn’t much time to turn around the parents views, and still less for the parents to be able to turn around the view of the social worker.

 

We shall see. The revised PLO is nearly upon us, and it will be happening, so all that we in the system can do is to try our best to make it work fairly for all involved. I’ll try to stop carping from the sidelines and try to come up with positive solutions as to how we make this system work fairly, but my fundamental thought is that it WILL require WORK to make it fair and that approaching the new regime as “like the old one but faster” won’t be sufficient, people in the system will have to be more alive to the need for us to get decisions that are not only swift but RIGHT.

 


 

Headlines, deadlines, outlines (but not hemlines)

The revised Public Law Outline was published last week, and I hadn’t yet blogged about it.

You can find it here

http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=dl114192

Lucy Reed over at Pink Tape has also blogged about it, and you can read her bit here:-

http://pinktape.co.uk/legal-news/new-plo-published/

 

There’s some jaunty young fellow-me-lad writing about it for Family Law Week, which you can find here,  though without as much ‘snark’ as suesspiciousminds would apply to it.

http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed114224

I go back to one of my earliest ever blog posts, quoting the German military strategist Helmut Von Molke

“No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”

and we will have a much better idea in the autumn (or more accurately, by the end of next spring, when all these 26 week cases OUGHT to be concluding) how it operates when moved from the field of theory into practice.

 

[And just to save me having to do a whole separate blog post, because I wanted to tell everyone how much I love THIS picture, which shows Mick Jagger at the very height of his rock-God powers, enjoying the cricket AND carrying a pint of bitter  (in a dimpled glass no less) . I don’t think I have seen a picture that quite makes me feel so utterly English as this one]

Mick gets some satisfaction

 

 

“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]

 

“The horse DEFINITELY goes at the BACK of the cart”

Without further comment, the important part of the speech that the President gave on the process of reform  [the whole speech is good, actually, and is short]

 

http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/Resources/JCO/Documents/Reports/pfd-update-process-of-reform.pdf

 

 

26 weeks

A comparatively small number of exceptional cases apart, we can and must meet the 26 week limit. We can, because various pilots and initiatives are not merely showing us that it can be done but, even more important, showing us how it can be done. We must, because if we do not, government and society will finally lose patience with us. I believe it can be done and I am determined to do everything in my power to make sure that it is. My message is clear and uncompromising: this deadline can be met, it must be met, it will be met. And remember, 26 weeks is a deadline, not a target; it is a maximum, not an average or a mean. So many cases will need to be finished in less than 26 weeks

 

[Okay, I lied about no further comment – three cheeky bits. One, this is the umpteenth hint I have seen dropped about it being likely that the Government will take the whole family justice system away from judges and lawyers if we don’t hit 26 week deadlines.  And two – the Children and Families Bill hits committee stage today, which is the first time that any of it has been looked at in any detail at all. It isn’t law yet.

 And finally of course, the President can introduce, if he wishes, a Practice Direction saying that the PLO timescale is to be slid down from 40 weeks to 26 weeks, and then it will be LAW that is to be followed, rather than nod and a wink POLICY]

“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

 

 

https://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

 

https://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. ]

 

I’ve got twenty-six weeks to go, twenty six weeks to go (or have I?)

 

This from the Association of Lawyers for Children, reporting on Ryder J  and MacFarlane LJ at the NAGALRO conference recently.  This is short, but there’s a lot of content in there.

 

On Monday 15th October 2012, the NAGALRO conference was addressed by Mr Justice Ryder and Lord Justice McFarlane.

Practitioners from different parts of the country raised concerns about courts rigidly implementing the 26 week timetable. One child care lawyer asked Mr Justice Ryder if he was aware that in the experience of many lawyers, the 26 weeks requirement had been written “on tablets of stone” – even if it led to a denial of justice for children and parents. Ryder J responded that the 26 weeks was not written in stone, that it was aspirational, and that in his view it may be achieved in two years’ time.

Both he and McFarlane LJ were very clear that there was “no missive from on high”, and no direction given to impose 26 weeks. The family modernisation programme did not have the status of a practice direction. Ryder J went on to observe that early data being collected from courts showed that the 26 week timetable was only achievable in about 30% of cases.

 

I had this debate fairly early on with the Legal Advisors in my area, when I was aware that their new computer system was making them fill in explanations of why a case was taking longer than 26 weeks and that there was no legal basis yet for making case management decisions around a 26 week timetable rather than a 40 week timetable.  My fear was obviously that they would decline an appropriate expert assessment that took the case from say 25 weeks to 30. 

 

I will be interested to see what happens when the first such case management decision made in the County Court goes up to the Court of Appeal. I’m sure that there have been some made on these grounds. I’ve certainly seen orders that reflect that  “this case has not been possible to conclude within 26 weeks because…’

 

And I think their 30% figure is probably about right.  What we don’t yet know, and I’ve blogged about it in the past, is how many of the decisions we take at 26 weeks when this comes in, are going to be right.  Where they are been over-optimistic, we will know, because the case will come back to Court. Where they have been over-pessimistic, we will never know because the Placement Order will be made and we know already how hard they are to revoke for a parent.

some titbits from the Justice Ryder talk

 

A few pieces of information that weren’t necessarily known before, that emerged from a talk he kindly gave in my neck of the woods.  I arrived late, so if I missed any announcement about Chatham House rules, I’ll obviously take this down.

 

1. There is a judicial review lodged about the LSC and whether they were reasonable in a particular case in refusing funding. From the very little that was given away, it seems to be a case involving private law, and parents who could not afford an assessment deemed important by the Court, so the report was commissioned and the costs directed to the Guardian’s public funding certificate. No timescales for when this will be heard.  The Judge was obviously very circumspect, and appropriately so, and did not discuss any detail or view of the case, but merely passing on that such a case was in the pipeline.

 

2. In drug and alcohol cases where longer testing is required, they might be able to exceed the 26 week limit -BUT it would be after the Court had inspected the evidence and considered that the timetable for THAT child warranted the case going beyond 26 weeks.

 

3. They have been discussing what to do with family and friends who present as viable but come forward very late in the proceedings; one possibility being actively considered is whether the Care Order be made (with the Court effectively determining that the child won’t live with parents)  and then the Placement Order/SGO/residence application be ‘uncoupled’ from the care proceedings and dealt with after assessments are done.

 

4. The judiciary are alive to the idea that when Parliament constructs the statutory framework for 26 week time cap, the exceptions need to not be based solely on complexity – the particular example given was of a first time teenage mother who just needs a longer period of monitoring and testing and learning, and whilst that wouldn’t be complex, there could well be a need for the case to go beyond 26 weeks. The suggestion was that the Court would need to consider and record on the orders why the timescale for that child went beyond 26 weeks. In order to present a balanced picture to the legislators, Justice Ryder was suggesting that Courts should ideally be recording that sort of thing on orders now, to build up a proper framework of what sort of cases genuinely need more time.

 

5. It did sound like the LSC might be having second thoughts about the Pandora’s Box of prior authority, and the senior judiciary are talking with them about possible solutions.

 

It was an interesting talk, delivered well, all questions given proper answers,  and even my cynicism wavered slightly. It does honestly sound as though they mean it this time – change is a’coming.

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.