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Senior judge demands reports on “lamentable” delay in care orders case

A Family Division judge has criticised “lamentable” delays in a child placement case and demanded reports from the borough council and Cafcass on what happened and how it might best be prevented in the future.

In St Helens Borough Council v M & Ors [2022] EWFC 56 Mr Justice Hayden said that he had been asked to make care orders for 15-year-old A, five year old T and S, who was nearly two.

A was made subject to child protection plans in January 2015, after being identified as at risk of emotional harm.

T was initially accommodated for a short period by another council's Children's Services in August 2016. A was removed from her mother's care under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 in December 2019.

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T and A are together in a foster placement “in which it should be recorded they are thriving”, the judge said.

In the case of S, the local authority's care plan proposes placement with a view to adoption.

Hayden J said it had been submitted that these proceedings had "an exceptionally long and complicated history, involving multiple expert and other assessments".

He responded: “I do not entirely agree with that characterisation of the case. Certainly, the litigation history is lamentable and undoubtedly, the delay in achieving a final hearing has been entirely irreconcilable with the obligation to promote the welfare of the children.”

There had been many assessments made and for reasons Hayden J had “struggled to understand, there have been five residential placements of mother (M) and baby.

“That is not merely unusual but in the experience of every professional in the case, entirely unprecedented. Each of the assessments produced significantly negative information regarding M's capacity to care for S in the long term.”

The judge said the hearing was the fourth at which the case had been listed and while some delays resulted from the pandemic “I am also left with the clear impression that a rather more robust approach to case management, by all concerned, would have avoided delay of this magnitude.”

He said plans for A and T “ought to have been resolved at least 12 months ago. In the intervening period, there has been no coherently arguable alternative to the arrangements that I have endorsed today and which, I emphasise, proceeded by agreement at this hearing following discussions at a pre-hearing review, which I listed on short notice”.

This delay had left A and T “anxious and unsettled by the lack of clear plans for their future”.

Hayden J said he had been unable to “track down why it is that this case has drifted in the way that it has for as long as it has.

“No advocate or any other professional has sought to defend the lamentable delay, nor, in my view, could they.”

He ordered reports from children's legal services and Cafcass on how this occurred and how it might be prevented in  future.

Mark Smulian

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