The family courts have begun to replace a “culture of delay” with a “culture of urgency”, the Chief Executive of Cafcass observes:
Anthony Douglas recently approved a recent drop in the average time taken to complete care applications, down to 30 weeks from double that two years ago. He said:
“A halving of the time a case takes in court gives the average child subject to care proceedings – an extra 6 months less in limbo. Of course, this only makes sense if the speed with which the child can be placed securely and safely with permanent carers, whether back home, with relatives or with approved carers outside of the family network, is also faster.”
However, he claims, if new children entering the care system simply join the “4,000 plus” already looking for homes and permanent carers, “the greater speed in the family courts will count for little.”
The dramatic decrease in care application completion times “is a huge shift in operational culture which we can build on in the years to come.”
From April this year, family courts will be expected to resolve care applications and decide whether children should stay with their birth families or enter the care system within a maximum of 26 weeks (six and a half months), except in exceptional circumstances.
Mr Douglas believes this timetable will now be met before the law changes, saying this is a “testimony to all those practitioners in the family justice system who have worked hard to bring it about.”
“I do not believe the fears about miscarriages of justice to parents by completing cases quicker are borne out. 26 weeks is still a very long time in a child’s life.”
Parents who abuse or neglect their children must show that they can change “in a matter of months, not years”, he said. Children “marooned” in the care system, with no sign of resolution or permanent placement “can easily lose their sense of hope and trust.”
This approval and the dismissal of speed leading to miscarriages of justice for parents from Sir Anthony Douglas should also be read in contrast with the recently reported decision of Re NL (A child) (Appeal: Interim Care Order: Facts and Reasons)  EWHC 270 (Fam) Mrs Justice Pauffley. In this case the court deprecated the widespread practice in care proceedings in the family proceedings court by which parties, usually the local authority, draft the ‘Facts and Reasons’ which are then adopted by the Justices.
In her judgment – which in his latest View (No 10) the President has recommended should be read by all care practitioners – Pauffley J said:
“Whilst I might be able to understand why such methods may have been developed, I am profoundly alarmed by their existence. Informal inquiries reveal, anecdotally, that the practices I have described are not confined to this area but are widespread across the country.”
“Seemingly, there were process failures in this case which significantly interfered with the most basic requirements for openness and transparency. There was, apparently, an established but largely clandestine arrangement between the local authority and the court which, to my mind, has considerable repercussions for justice and, equally importantly, the perception that justice will be done. It is fundamental that nothing is sent to the judge by one party unless it is copied simultaneously to every other party.
“Equally and just as importantly, it is difficult to view the Justices as having been independent and impartial if, as happened here, they simply adopted the local authority’s analysis of what their Findings and Reasons might comprise.”
Most notably and relevant to the approval of the speed now being exercised in the Family Courts is the comment made by Pauffley, J whereby she stated the following:
The judge noted that the reason why the local authority acted as it did concerning the report might be associated with the family justice reforms and the impetus to complete public law cases within 26 weeks. She commented:
“Justice must never be sacrificed upon the altar of speed.”
Words that many involved in the family courts would echo.
June Venters QC