The latest

Welcome to another week.

These are the child welfare stories that should be right on your radar:

Serious procedural irregularities in family court hearings finally considered important to a fair trial

A recently published judgment from a case in which a mother was accused of causing injury to her child finally acknowledges the importance of addressing serious procedural errors in family court cases.

LexisNexis has produced a very good summary of the case, an extract of which we’re adding below:

“A fact-finding hearing took place in early 2021 in care proceedings involving a girl, S, then aged 6½ years of age. The principal issue arising in the hearing was the cause of injuries sustained by another child, J, a boy then aged 5½ years of age. Other findings sought by the local authority related to allegations of domestic abuse by the father, Y, towards S’s mother, X, and J’s mother, A’s misuse of ketamine. The judge found that J’s injuries had been sustained accidentally but some had been inflicted by A. A appealed on the basis of, amongst other things, a serious procedural irregularity contending that she had cognitive difficulties which were unidentified. She filed a redacted cognitive and psychological assessment to support the appeal.”

The summary also explains that:

“The failure to identify A’s cognitive difficulties and to make appropriate participation directions to ensure that the quality of her evidence was not diminished as a result of vulnerability had amounted to a serious procedural irregularity. As a result, the outcome of the hearing was unjust.”

While the appeal has been allowed on the ground that the mother, who was found to be vulnerable because of her cognitive difficulties, did not have a fair opportunity to present her case (among other grounds), the LexisNexis summary mentions that any subsequent hearings might not alter the original outcome of the case.

However the judgment itself says:

“In the period between the fact-finding hearing and the appeal, S, who had been removed from her parents’ care, is living with family and is apparently thriving in their care. Meanwhile, in part as a result of the findings, the local authority has started further care proceedings in respect of J and his brother, although they remain at home under an interim supervision order. The future of all three children may therefore be affected significantly by the outcome of this appeal.”

You can read the judgment for free on BAILII.

Another judgment to note this week stems from an abduction case in which the father took his three-year-old daughter to Switzerland. The court ordered the daughter’s return to her mother in England.

The father alleged that he was a victim of the mother’s bullying, and had taken his daughter to Switzerland to protect them both.

Justice Hayden, who oversaw the hearing, rejected the father’s allegations and said the move would cause the child to suffer significant emotional harm:

“This was a cold and meticulously contrived abduction which required a great deal of careful planning. It not only separated A from her mother but from her siblings too. I am told that she is brought up to speak French which her mother does not speak. She is entirely deracinated from her maternal family with no recognition by F of the extent to which that will cause her lifelong harm and, ultimately, come to corrode her relationship with him too… By contrast, I feel confident that M, for all the challenges she faces, has an instinctive warmth and understanding of her children which, properly supported, will enable her to provide a more secure emotional base for A,” Hayden said in his judgement.

There is a very good summary of the case on LexisNexis as always, for those with subscriptions. The judgment itself can be read for free on BAILII.

REPOST: Parents, did you feel “set up to fail” during care proceedings?

Welcome to another week.

As promised, we are republishing a post we shared last week inviting parents to share their experiences of care proceedings with a focus on which stages of the process they felt were unfair.

Researching Reform will show social work staff how the framework used in care proceedings sets parents up to fail and enables unjust child removals, at an event hosted by Neath Port Talbot social services.

The Public Law Outline (PLO) is a legal framework which acts as a form of guidance for the family court about how to manage care proceedings.

It contains the order of the different stages of the process; the matters to be considered at the main case management hearings; and timescales for each stage of the process which should be followed by the family courts and social work staff in order to resolve the proceedings within 26 weeks.

Initially created to prevent children from staying too long inside the child protection system, the outline has been heavily criticised in recent years.

One of the key concerns stems from its use of time limits to try and push cases through the courts in instances where more time would have allowed parents to demonstrate their ability to care for their children, and keep them in their care.

Social workers also struggle to meet the deadlines in an increasing number of cases. Extensions are supposed to be granted in cases where additional time would resolve the case fairly, but many parents say they are simply refused more time to make the changes being asked of them.

And despite a growing number of social work experts acknowledging that the system does set parents up to fail – and even using the term, which was coined by deeply frustrated families inside the system experiencing this unfairness – the system has not done anything to address the problem.

Researching Reform decided that the best way to show social work staff the problems with this guidance and its timeframes was to collect real-life experiences of the families who have been exposed to them, and we would be so grateful for your help.

We are looking to gather experiences of families and children who have gone through care proceedings and felt that the stages and time limits set them up to fail.

This post includes questions below which you are welcome to email or post your answers to if you would like to share your experience. There is also an accessible breakdown of the PLO so that you can point to which bits of the guidance affected you, and how.

The conference takes place at the beginning of February, so we would welcome as much input as you can offer over the next two weeks. We will keep sharing this post as well, so that you can come back to it whenever you would like to.

Questions we would love the answers to:

  • Did you feel you the care proceedings process/ PLO was setting you up to fail, and if so, why?
  • How did the timelines in your case affect your ability to carry out tasks, courses and assessments ordered by the court?
  • Did any of the courses run over any of the time limits and prevent you from showing the results to a court?
  • Were any of the timelines extended?
  • Which part/s of the PLO do you think should be scrapped and why?
  • Which parts of the PLO do you think are useful, and why?
  • Was some of the PLO ignored or not carried out at all during your case?
  • Was some/ all of the PLO wrongly carried out during your case?

Breakdown of the Public Law Outline:

Stages

  • Pre-proceedings Checklist – submission of documents, evidence and records to the court
  • Stage 1: Issue and Allocation – On day 1, a local authority files the application form, then 24 hours later a court must consider an application and give directions
  • Stage 2: Case Management Hearing – advocates meet including litigants in person, no later than 2 business days before the case management hearing. Not before day 12 and not later than day 18  is a further case management hearing to be held only if necessary, and must listed as soon as possible and in any event no later than day 25.
  • Stage 3: Issues Resolution Hearing – advocates meet including litigants in person, no later than 7 business days before the issue resolutions hearing. Court identifies key issues and evidence, and gives final case management directions including the filing of the final evidence and care plan, skeleton arguments and a listing for the final hearing.

If you would like to see the PLO in full, you can access it here.

There is also a good page explaining the PLO and the documents related to it on the Family Rights Group website.

You can post your comments below (we review comments before publication to ensure we don’t publicly share any confidential information) or you can email Researching Reform at Sobk13 at gmail dot com.

Researching Reform has not accepted any payment for taking part in this conference.

Family court president gives evidence to Justice Committee about publishing child welfare cases

The president of the family courts told the House of Commons Justice Committee that balancing transparency with confidentiality to create a framework for journalists reporting on family cases would be “really difficult”, in an evidence session held on Tuesday.

Andrew McFarlane, who is responsible for the running of the family courts as president was giving evidence to the committee’s “Open justice: court reporting in the digital age” inquiry.

During the session McFarlane also told MPs, “There must be a way of allowing openness so that people can see what we do, understand what we do, how we do it, why we make the decisions and yet maintain the anonymity of the individuals involved, but that is the tricky bit: to achieve that confidentiality whilst being open.”

The committee also heard evidence from John Battle, chair of the Media Lawyers Association and head of legal and compliance at ITN, and Dr Natalie Byrom, director of research at the Legal Education Foundation.

All tiers of the Family Court were opened in April 2009 to accredited members of the media. Judges can restrict attendance, or access to certain information on child welfare grounds or for the safety of parties to the cases. Parties can also ask the court to restrict access.

Concerns about the way the Family Court runs and handles cases have grown in recent years. These concerns are largely due to the Court’s ongoing reluctance to acknowledge and address serious legal and cultural problems inside the system. As a result, media scrutiny is now seen by many child welfare advocates as the only way to bring the court’s failures to light and in so doing bring about much needed change.

Following pressure from the public, journalists and court reform advocates, McFarlane launched a transparency working group to look at ways of enabling more in-depth coverage of family court cases.

A report published by the group on 29 October, 2021 was initially hailed by journalists as a positive step forward in making family law cases more accessible. However in reality the proposals in the report offer very little room for journalistic scrutiny of these cases. The group also appears to be being used a vehicle by the president to defend the system’s haphazard, unprofessional and often dangerous working processes rather than allowing proper scrutiny of what is a government-run body.

Minutes of a meeting held by the group published on 5 January, 2022 included a section in which the president also asked members not to engage in live tweeting during meetings and discouraged any discussion about the meetings with non-members.

Speaking to the committee this week, McFarlane added, “I am in the easy seat at the moment, having got to the big ideas – how we do it is really tricky and that is why I have got this transparency implementation group up and running, but I don’t pretend it is easy at all.”

The president’s group currently has 26 members of which only one is a journalist.

You can watch the evidence sessions on Parliament TV here.

Additional links:

In the news

The latest child welfare items that should be right on your radar:

Parents: did you feel you were set up to fail during care proceedings?

Researching Reform will be showing social work staff how current care proceedings set parents up to fail and enable unjust child removals at an event hosted by Neath Port Talbot social services.

The Public Law Outline (PLO) is a legal framework which acts as a form of guidance for the family court about how to manage care proceedings. It includes timelines for each stage of the process which the family courts and all social work staff are required to follow.

It contains the order of the different stages of the process, the matters to be considered at the main case management hearings, and timescales within which the main stages of the process should take place in order to resolve the proceedings within 26 weeks.

Initially created to prevent children from staying too long inside the child protection system, the outline has been heavily criticised in recent years.

One of the key concerns stems from its use of timescales to try and push cases through the courts in instances where more time would have allowed parents to demonstrate their ability to care for their children, and keep them in their care.

Social workers also struggle to meet the deadlines in an increasing number of cases. Extensions are supposed to be granted in cases where additional time would resolve the case fairly, but many parents say they are simply refused more time to make the changes being asked of them.

Researching Reform decided that the best way to show social work staff the problems with this guidance and its timeframes was to collect real-life experiences of the families who have been exposed to them, and we would be so grateful for your help.

We are looking to gather experiences of families and children who have gone through care proceedings.

This post includes questions below which you are welcome to email or post your answers to if you would like to share your experience. There is also an accessible breakdown of the PLO so that you can point to which bits of the guidance affected you, and how.

The conference takes place at the beginning of February, so we would welcome as much input as you can offer over the next two weeks. We will keep sharing this post as well, so that you can come back to it whenever you would like to.

Questions we would love the answers to:

  • Did you feel you the care proceedings process/ PLO was setting you up to fail, and if so, why?
  • How did the timelines in your case affect your ability to carry out tasks, courses and assessments ordered by the court?
  • Did any of the courses run over any of the time limits and prevent you from showing the results to a court?
  • Were any of the timelines extended?
  • Which part/s of the PLO do you think should be scrapped and why?
  • Which parts of the PLO do you think are useful, and why?
  • Was some of the PLO ignored or not carried out at all during your case?
  • Was some/ all of the PLO wrongly carried out during your case?

Breakdown of the Public Law Outline:

Stages

  • Pre-proceedings Checklist – submission of documents, evidence and records to the court
  • Stage 1: Issue and Allocation – On day 1, a local authority files the application form, then 24 hours later a court must consider an application and give directions
  • Stage 2: Case Management Hearing – advocates meet including litigants in person, no later than 2 business days before the case management hearing. Not before day 12 and not later than day 18  is a further case management hearing to be held only if necessary, and must listed as soon as possible and in any event no later than day 25.
  • Stage 3: Issues Resolution Hearing – advocates meet including litigants in person, no later than 7 business days before the issue resolutions hearing. Court identifies key issues and evidence, and gives final case management directions including the filing of the final evidence and care plan, skeleton arguments and a listing for the final hearing.

If you would like to see the PLO in full, you can access it here.

There is also a good page explaining the PLO and the documents related to it on the Family Rights Group website.

You can post your comments below (we review comments before publication to ensure we don’t publicly share any confidential information) or you can email Researching Reform at Sobk13 at gmail dot com.

Researching Reform has not accepted any payment for taking part in this conference.

In the news

Welcome to another week.

These are the child welfare items that should be right on your radar.