Family court delays mean average length of care proceedings at nine-year high
Representative body for Directors of Children’s Services says a ‘significant improvement’ in the length of time care proceedings are taking will not be seen until the courts are fully open and operating as normal.
Figures from the Ministry of Justice show the average time for a care or supervision case to reach first disposal was 43 weeks in the first quarter of 2021.
The statistics showed that the average length of care proceedings were at their highest in almost nine years, up 8 weeks from the same time period in 2020.
Just over a fifth (22%) of care proceedings were found to have ended within the Government’s 26-week target, 14% fewer than the same period last year.
Nearly 72,000 new cases started in family courts in January to March 2021, up 7% on the same quarter in 2020, with increases in most case types, including domestic violence, private law, and adoption cases.
Sara Tough, Chair of the ADCS Families, Communities & Young People Policy Committee, said the latest family court statistics are yet another reminder of how the impact of COVID-19 continues to be felt.
“Clearly, when considering these statistics, we must take into account the significant disruption to the work of the courts as a result of the pandemic.
“The courts are ensuring that hearings are conducted in a COVID-safe way which can cause delays, for example the use of remote hearings often take longer and are not well suited to complex, contested hearings. Everyone within the system is working tirelessly and rightly trying to prioritise children but under the current national restrictions this adds extra difficulties.
Last month, The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) said its open cases had risen by more than a quarter when compared to the same time last year, receiving 4,912 new cases in May 2021.
Cafcass, which is the largest employer of qualified social workers in the country, said the increase is largely explained by the “record levels” of demand seen in the first two months of the 2020/21 period, following the first lockdown that began in March 2020. It said overall caseloads had increased having been impacted by the slower family justice system as a result of the pandemic, with cases held by Family Court Advisers staying open for longer.
Tough, who is also Director of Children’s Services at Norfolk County Council, said the ADCS “remains in regular discussion” with Government, Cafcass and judiciary regarding the backlog, but that a significant improvement in the length of time care proceedings are taking until the courts are “fully open and operating as normal, before the pandemic struck.”
“We know that timeliness is important to children in progressing permanence plans and we are all committed to doing this as best we can, however, our main aim should always be meeting the individual needs of a child or young person, even if this falls outside of the 26 week limit.”
The latest figures from the MoJ also showed that the number of domestic violence remedy order applications increased by 12% compared to the equivalent quarter in 2020, while the number of orders made increased by 13% over the same period.
There were also almost 1,200 adoption applications, up 6% on the equivalent quarter in 2020. Similarly, the number of adoption orders issued increased by 6% to 1,166.
There were also 1,459 applications relating to deprivation of liberty in January to March 2021, up 81% on the equivalent quarter in 2020, however orders decreased by 4% in the latest quarter compared to the same period last year.
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