New family protocol to speed up childcare cases

The Government promised to cut down delays in childcare cases with the launch of a new judicial protocol last week. According to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, the ‘Protocol for Judicial Case Management in Public Law Children Act Cases’ was “the centrepiece” of the Government’s programme to reduce unnecessary delays in Children Act cases that normally last almost a year.

“This new protocol puts children first”, commented Lord Filkin, the minister with responsibility for the Family Justice System. “It aims to speed up court cases so that children have the certainty they need about their future as soon as possible. All agencies, including social services, Cafcass [Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service] and the courts will have to come together to make this work”.

There are around 20,000 public law care applications each year, and last year the average length for such a case was 48 weeks. The protocol was published in June this year and, since then, staff have been recruited and IT put in place to assist the changes. There have been 2,000 additional sitting days allocated to county courts in England and Wales in 2003 to cope with the increasing number of public law care applications.

In particular, the protocol aims to: reduce delay by the early narrowing down of issues; encourage a proactive and cooperative approach to case management among judges and lawyers; reduce the number of directions hearings; use experts in a more focussed manner; and reduce the length of final hearings.

David Burrows, chairman of the Solicitors Family Law Association (SFLA), recently raised “four cheers” to the aim of the protocol. But he was “sceptical” of the use of the word ‘protocol’. “Excellent though the ideas are in this protocol, it seemed to me, at first reading, that it was merely making rule changes by the back door”, he argued in a recent SFLA review.

But Burrows said the protocol reflected a realisation by the president of the Family Court, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, and other judges of the Family Court, that rule changes of such a scale take time, but that “something desperately needs to be done to control delay in children proceedings”.

There was a proposed new system “carefully and painstakingly worked out by a variety of agencies, including the SFLA”, said Burrows. “[The protocol] achieves the necessary end, whatever the technical procedural means. It deserves to work. For the sake of so many children, whose lives are suspended while the court process grinds on, it must work.”