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Voice of the child in pre-proceedings work

 

Work done with the Local Authority and parents before the case ever gets to Court (and ideally with the view of the case never needing to come to Court) has been important for a few years now, and will become even more important when the new PLO comes in, and there’s even more emphasis on what happened before the case got into the Court-room.

 

There have been many people saying for a number of years, that not having a Guardian, representing the child’s interests and being either the check-and-balance to a Local Authority who may be being zealous or oppressive OR an independent person who is able to impartially communicate to the parents that they are in a perilous situation if improvements are not made, is a major flaw in the pre-proceedings system.

 

It is for that reason that a pilot was set up in Coventy and Warwickshire, to have a Guardian involved in pre-proceedings meetings between the social worker and the parents.

 

The pilot is complete now, and the report is available here http://www.cafcass.gov.uk/media/167143/coventry_and_warwickshire_pre-proceedings_pilot_final_report_july_4_2013.pdf

 

{There was a third pilot area, Liverpool, and there will be a report on that in due course}

 

The positive aspects of the pilot was that the diversion rate of pre-proceedings cases where a Guardian was involved was fifty per cent   (by diversion rate, they mean, cases that ended up with the problems being sufficiently resolved by the parents that the case did not have to go to Court).  That’s a decent figure, comparing favourably to the existing Masson studies of pre-proceedings work generally diverting about 25% of cases, and the other cases in the samples in those Local Authorities where Guardians were not involved.

 

 

Of the cases that do go to Court, are they dealt with any faster? Well, the sample sizes are frankly very small to draw conclusions from – one or two “long runners” could skew the figures very badly, but they do claim that the Pre proceedings cases where there WAS a Guardian (CAFCASS Plus) finished more quickly than the ones where there was not

 

The overall average (mean) duration of the care proceedings for the Cafcass PLUS cases (excluding the complex cases) is 36.3 weeks (based on 11 cases). The duration of the comparator cases is 42.6 weeks (18 cases). There is a distinct differencebetween the Warwickshire Cafcass PLUS and comparator cases in respect of careproceedings duration. There are fewer longer running cases (more than 40 weeks) in the Cafcass PLUS sample as a whole.

 

I really think the sample size is far too small to get excited about that. And actually, is the over-arching aim of having a voice for the child in pre-proceedings work speed of resolution, as opposed to fairness and getting the work done right?

 

 

The positive diversion rates, the pilot considers largely due to two things – (1) galvanising extended family members to assist the parents, and this seems to me to be a very laudable aim and (2) parents engaging in reparative work.

 

It would have been interesting to know whether the involvement of a Guardian either increased the reach out to family members OR somehow made it more likely that the family members ‘stepped up to the plate’. And also whether the reparative work was either better focussed, or the parents more committed to making use of it.    That would be something I would hope is focussed on more, if the pilot is enhanced in numbers.

 

This bit is interesting

 

However, the pilot also provides clear evidence that where cases progressed to court on an unplanned basis and local authority work is

incomplete, then the FCA was not able overturn deficiencies in pre-­proceedings practice.

 

[i.e, where the pre-proceedings work hasn’t been done very well, having a Guardian on board didn’t fix that. That seems to me rather disappointing, that’s clearly what one would hope that a Guardian would be doing during this pre-proceedings work, making sure that the LA did the work properly and covered all of the bases, with the benefit of that fresh pair of eyes and an independent pair of eyes.]

 

 

The pilot report raises some very good questions about systemic causes of delay, two of the four of which rest on the shoulders of the Courts rather than other professionals

 

Systemic factors include:

 

1. the enduring problem of variability in the quality of social work

assessment but equally failure of courts to recognise good social work

practice which creates something of a ‘chicken and an egg’ situation;

 

2. that a number of cases appear to enter the pre-proceedings process too late, such that the window for further assessment and attempt to effect change is missed and cases then progress to court on an

unplanned/emergency basis;

 

3. the difficulty of making effective decisions about, and providing effective support to parents with fluctuating mental capacity who are not deemed to warrant the services of the Official Solicitor;

 

4. difficulties in timetabling contested final hearings due to insufficient court sitting time and problems of co-ordinating the diaries of very busy

professionals.

 

 

The Official Solicitor issue is a perennial one, and becoming even more important as we have a hard cap of 26 weeks – if you can’t fairly work with parents or ask them to make decisions/agree assessments/sign written agreements because they don’t have capacity to do so, and you can’t get the Official Solicitor representing them until you are in proceedings, it will mean that all parents who lack capacity will have less time to turn their problems round than ones who do have capacity. That seems to me to be a decent Disability Discrimination case to run at some point.

 

The pilot report echoes many of the issues already raised in the Masson report about pre-proceedings work, chiefly the overwhelming feeling of professionals involved that the Court didn’t really pay any attention to it and that Courts simply routinely commission fresh assessments with the view that any parenting or risk assessment only counts if it takes place within Court proceedings.

 

 

Independence is an important issue – there’s an obvious risk that a Guardian who participates in pre-proceedings work that culminates in care proceedings being issued might be felt by the parents to have come to the care proceedings with a view of the case already formed  (rather than being completely fresh and impartial at the time that proceedings are issued)

 

The FCA’s Independence: was it in question?

The question of whether pre-proceedings involvement of the FCA compromised the FCA’s independence was raised by a range of stakeholders encountered during the course of this project. A review of parents’ statements did not reveal any concerns about this from their representatives in the Cafcass PLUS sample. The FCAs themselves stated that they did not feel their independence was compromised by

earlier involvement, they felt able to assert an independent perspective regardless of when they became involved in a case. Of course, in a small number of cases, because the FCA who was involved in pre-­proceedings had left the service, in actual fact the

case was then allocated to another FCA as described above.

 

 

[If you’ll forgive me, I’ll continue to use the word “guardian” rather than Family Court Advisor or FCA, I just don’t like it… I still miss “Guardian ad Litem” to be frank]

 

The report overall is positive about the benefits to be achieved by involving Guardians in pre-proceedings work.  I am afraid that given the costs and resources that rolling it out nationally would require, the pilot study would have needed to be much more glowing and triumphant.  And that in particular, it would have needed to show that Guardian involvement pre-proceedings had a real bearing on the success of cases being concluded within 26 weeks.

 

I think in the current climate and the agendas that are being pursued, I don’t see this pilot being positive enough to be rolled out. But it is still an interesting report and the issues that it touches on of just how hard hitting those 26 week targets will be until there is genuine systemic change are important ones.

 

 

 

[Voting link for Suesspicious Minds in the Family Law awards – you can vote for me – or any of the other candidates, who incidentally are not offering to save your life at some unspecified point in the future, here

 

http://www.familylawawards.com/ShortlistedNominees2012   ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 That gave me some food for thought.