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
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)
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.