The Care Proceedings Pilot, which launched this week, will test new ways of working between the family courts, three London councils – Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea – and courts body Cafcass.
It aims to achieve permanent plans for children within the six-month target recommended by the review. All care cases, from April, will form part of the pilot.
“Delay in any part of the system causes a knock-on delay elsewhere so we are trying to make every part of the system work to its optimum efficiency,” said Steve Miley, director of family services at Hammersmith and Fulham council.
Councils will deliver prompt, high quality assessments that “meet the court’s needs and reduce the need for second opinions”, Miley said, while judges will ensure children’s timescales are central to cases and Cafcass that guardians do not contribute to delay.
The Inner London Family Proceedings Court will hold designated days for cases being heard under the pilot and there will be judicial continuity, wherever possible.
Two new positions, a project manager and a case manager, have been created. They will coordinate between 80-100 care cases across the boroughs every year, tracking and chasing the progress of each case to make sure it is completed within six months.
They will also support social workers to make the changes, Miley said. “We will support our social workers, through guidance, to do more comprehensive assessments. There will be extra work within cases but less work overall if we reduce the likelihood of cases being extended.”
Care cases in the boroughs currently take between 55 to 65 weeks, but the pilot should see cases completely in around 26 weeks.
“It sounds radical, compared with how long cases take now, but it can be done,” Miley said. “Our project manager visited Grimsby where their average case takes 22 weeks. We are also clear that six months is not a blanket rule.”
The pilot, part of a ‘Whole Place’ community budget awarded to the councils by the Department for Communities and Local Government, has a start-up budget of approximately £50,000 and is expected to cost around £160,000 per year.
Each borough has also contributed costs to the pilots. Palmer said: “We spend around £30,000 on internal lawyers and external advocates per care case in Hammersmith and Fulham so that’s around £1.7m every year on lawyers alone. If we reduce the length of care proceedings we will also reduce some of our costs.”
Andrew Christie, who oversees the children’s departments in all three boroughs, said: “While the measurable focus of this pilot might be to speed up family court proceedings and hit the six-month target, the overarching aim is to achieve greater permanency and emotional stability for vulnerable children in our care.”