Barnardos are suggesting a 30 week period in which care cases should be completed - see The Guardian 9th August - "Children left in danger by court delays". At the end of 2009, there were 12,994 open care cases in the courts. Cases are taking an average of 57 weeks to complete in the county courts or, in the magistrates' Family Proceedings Courts, an average of 45 weeks. A second article is by Mr Leslie Baker JP who is a member of the family proceedings panel in Wiltshire - The Guardian 20th August - "Decisions on care proceedings are too sensitive to be given a fixed deadline". He says that delays are due to the need to obtain the necessary information so that the court can make a proper decision. "Care orders, allowing children to be removed from their parents, are life-changing instruments and courts must be satisfied that a case merits such draconian action".
The essential fact is that both Barnardos and Mr Baker are basically right: delay is prejudicial to a child's welfare but always the full facts must be ascertained. An artificial 30 week "cut off" therefore seems impracticable. The real question then becomes - how can a better balance be achieved between delay and adequacy of information?
A further problem is that the Legal Services Commission (LSC) has succeeded (from October 2010) in taking away legal aid franchises from some 46% of the firms who practise in this vital area of law. Whilst there are some legal challenges afoot to the tender process used by the LSC, the outcome may still be a very big cut in legal aid and it would be almost impossible, in this complex area of the law, for an unrepresented parent to cope against the local authority and perhaps the Children's Guardian as well. Note: guardians are independent of the local authority and are usually assigned to particular cases by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS). The Guardian's role is to safeguard the interests of the child. The absence of legal representation is likely to make cases take even longer than at present.
The Lord Chief Justice has called for proceedings to be shorter - see Family Law 20th July. He also questioned whether the present ADVERSARIAL system is the right approach. Adversarial proceedings often polarise the parties who frequently adopt very entrenched positions and come to think of themselves as "winners" or "losers". See also Law and Lawyers 10th July.