Magistrates have warned that many public law children cases will not be concluded within the proposed 26-week timeframe for care proceedings, it has emerged.
In a submission last month to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Pre Legislative Scrutiny of the Children and Families Bill, the Magistrates’ Association said it supported the 26-week limit in principle for the majority of public law cases.
The association also said magistrates were committed to doing all they could to affect this by robust case management.
“However, based on the complexity of a number of contested cases before the court it is likely that many cases will not be concluded within this restriction,” the submission said.
The MA said it was mindful of the delays that had set into proceedings. It therefore suggested that greater emphasis should be placed on pre-proceedings work carried out by the local authority before the clock started ticking.
“Not only would this reduce the number of cases reaching court but would ensure that applications are brought correctly,” it argued. “This would include working with the family, a better understanding by the parents of what is involved, identification of and work with extended family members, and detailed assessments being carried out.”
The MA said it would oppose criteria being built into legislation for cases which were likely to fall outside the 26 weeks, on the basis that this was more likely to incur delay from procedural representations.
The association meanwhile warned about the impact of limits being placed on the scrutiny of care plans.
It said: “If the court is excluded from any significant consideration of care plans, it could actually end up with more cases being fully contested and therefore add to delay rather than shortening proceedings.
“Therefore, there needs to be a balance between courts not trying to micro-manage care plans, while taking into consideration aspects that go to the heart of the local authority application; the key issue is the materiality and impact of changes on the child/ren and in particular provisions affecting permanence.”
The MA warned that every case was different and should be treated on its merits with full regard to the paramountcy principle. “In addition, the written reasons of the Family Proceedings Court are held on file and the young person can view them at a later date,” it said.
The submission added that if the court were to be restricted to considering only the permanence provisions, the MA would wish it to be made clear that this includes it being able to consider the issue of sibling placement in the relevant care plans and to make recommendations.
In other comments, the association said:
- Magistrates recognised the need for robust case management. “Court directions should be complied with, timetabling for the child should be made early in proceedings and the practice direction on expert evidence be applied consistently."
- It encouraged parallel planning at the earliest opportunity. “Better planning at the start of a case would encourage concurrent work rather than consecutive assessments after failure.”
- To ensure court decisions are always taken in the best interests of the child, "planning is essential, as is dependence on reliable guardian input, delay must be kept to a minimum and it is essential that the court must reach a judicial decision based on all available evidence".
- Comprehensive reasons should accompany the decision, to be made available for the child to see when reaching adulthood.
- In public law the FPC relies on the recommendation of the guardian to hear the child’s voice. “We are concerned, however, that the role of the guardian should be to continue to get to know the family and especially the child so that s/he can befriend them throughout proceedings. Maintaining full confidence in the guardian would also reduce delay and assist in reaching a timetable for the child.”
- If older children wish to attend court in person, they should be encouraged to do so. “In the Youth Court, Magistrates are trained to talk directly to children and we consider this should be applied to the FPC where appropriate.”
A copy of the submission can be viewed here.