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Family Drug and Alcohol Court: Practitioners’ and Judge’s Perspectives

Sarah Jennings & Esther Lieu, 3PB, with District Judge Julie Exton look at the Family Drug and Alcohol Court.

Sarah Jennings
& Esther Lieu, barristers, 3PB, with District Judge Julie Exton

What is FDAC?
"A strikingly successful example of courts innovating to deal with complex problems." 1
The Family Drug and Alcohol Court was originally set up by District Judge Nicholas Crichton at the Inner London Family Proceedings Court in 2008 with funding from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Department of Health as well as the three local authorities involved in the pilot scheme.  In 2012, direct governmental funding was withdrawn at the conclusion of the pilot scheme and the local authorities involved (as well as two additional London local authorities) continued funding the FDAC themselves.  In March 2013 District Judge Julie Exton worked with Gloucestershire County Council to start an FDAC in Gloucestershire.   Milton Keynes and Buckinghamshire have also recently started using the FDAC model and it is hoped that the model will be rolled out across the country in the next few years.2

Why does FDAC exist?
In over 50% of FDAC cases the mother/ parents have already had one child removed at the conclusion of previous care proceedings and in almost all those situations it was due to the same drug and alcohol dependence that instigated the subsequent proceedings. FDAC recognises that unless such dependency is properly addressed then those parents will continue to struggle to care for their children irrespective of how many times they try.

Who 'attends' FDAC?
To qualify for the FDAC scheme parents must have a significant drug and/or alcohol problem and be at a stage at which they are willing to tackle that addiction.  In Gloucester, Gloucestershire County Council and Gloucester NHS Trust fund the Turn Around for Children Team (TACS team), which consists of drug and alcohol professionals who will recommend a referral to the FDAC if they assess a parent as having the necessary motivation for achieving abstinence. Once accepted into FDAC, proceedings are immediately timetabled for both the positive route (abstinence and safe parenting mean that the children remain at home) and the negative route (removal).

How does FDAC differ from standard care proceedings?
As we know, it is very difficult for a parent to show abstinence within the 26-weeks allowed for court proceedings.  For this reason FDAC is recognised as an exemption to the 26 week limit provided that there is evidence to show (i) motivation to change, (ii) ability to maintain that change and (iii) that this can be achieved within the children's timescales (Re S: A child [2014] EWCC B44 (Fam) (16 April 2014), para 38 (Sir James Munby)).

How does FDAC work?
The parents are expected to engage in a highly intensive programme of drug intervention work and parenting assessment.  Addressing an addiction may entail separating from their partner, relocating and distancing themselves from their social networks. Alongside the physical and emotional toll of reducing their usage, the parent may be asked to address, through therapy, the traumatic experiences that have influenced or perpetuated substance abuse. They are required to attend several appointments a week, sometimes several a day, whilst ensuring that they attend contact on time and in the appropriate frame of mind to interact with their child. Above all the parent is required to engage openly with the TACS team, informing them of any relapses or difficulties.

What are the benefits of FDAC?

• FDAC works to create a relationship between the professional drug workers, social workers, judiciary and the parents.  The transparency of this relationship seems to assist the parents in accepting their issues and working towards a better future.

• Judicial continuity builds a relationship between the parent and the judge, and the non-lawyer reviews enable them to communicate with the judge directly. It is not uncommon for the parents to thank the judge at the end of a case even if the children are ultimately to be removed from their care. 

• Notwithstanding their approachability, the authority of the judge remains crucial to FDAC:"parents have to know and understand that the nice person listening to them and wanting to help, also has the authority to say they won't get their children back.' (DJ Crichton)

• In our experience, FDAC also seems to promote kinship placements because a parent is less likely to destabilise a placement once they have accepted that they have drug and alcohol issues and are working towards abstinence.  The TACS team also work with the family as a whole to indentify triggers and signs of relapse.  As District Judge Crichton has said, FDAC is "better for parents, better for children, better for families and ultimately better for our society." (BBC Radio Three, Law in Action "Drug And Alcohol Misusing Families" 15th March 2012)

View from the Bench (by District Judge Exton)
The judge in charge of a Family Drug and Alcohol Court needs to be able to play the good cop and the bad cop. Parents at the outset of proceedings are left under no illusion: everyone in the room wants them to succeed; but, if they are unable to become, and remain, abstinent within the child's timeframe, the judge will have no hesitation in removing the child from their care. They are also told that this is the best chance they will ever have of turning their lives around.

One of the unique, and crucial, features of the FDAC is that parents attend fortnightly, non-lawyer reviews with the judge who discusses the progress they have made. Initially nervous about that aspect, once familiar with the process, the lawyers' concerns disappear. They understand their client's relationship with the judge empowers them, they feel more in control of their case and they appreciate (often feeling this for the first time) that someone is actually interested in them. And, importantly for the success of their case, they do not want to let the judge down.

Even when parents do not succeed, they have never in the Gloucestershire FDAC contested the final recommendation; they know they have had the best possible chance and appreciate that it is not safe for the child to return to their care. But they have often themselves made significant progress.

There have been some spectacular, and unexpected, successes and, because the judge has got to know them so well, in Gloucestershire she sees the parents six months into their supervision order. The parents look forward to that meeting. Likewise, the judge who regards the FDAC as her favourite day of the fortnight!

Following FDAC's inception five years ago, an evaluation was carried out in May 2014 by Brunel University (lead by Professor Judith Harwin) and consultants RyanTunnardBrown, funded by the Nuffield Foundation. Of the 90 families that were sampled the team found:

• FDAC mothers had higher rates of substance misuse cessation (40%) than those who had been through ordinary care proceedings (25%).

• FDAC families had higher rates of family reunification (35%) than those who had been through ordinary care proceedings (19%).

• The rate of neglect or abuse one year after children returned home was lower for FDAC parents (25%) than parents who had been through ordinary care proceedings (56%).

The report concluded that FDAC is "more focused, less antagonistic and more informal, yet sufficiently rigorous when needed" compared with the standard court system. In our experience this sentiment is echoed by professionals working within the FDAC process.  To quote Lord Justice Munby, "the simple reality is that FDAC works" (Re S (A child) [2014] EWCC B44 (Fam)).


1 Building Better Courts: Lessons from London's Family Drug and Alcohol Court. The New Economics Foundation, Stephen Whitehead. July 2014. 

In June 2013 Sir James Munby , the President of the Family Division declared his wish for a family drug and alcohol court in all 44 DFJ areas in England

BBC Radio 4 - Law in Action: Drug and Alcohol Misusing Families
(15 March 2012).

Project Website

Changing Lifestyles, Keeping Children Safe: an evaluation of the first Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) in care proceedings. Judith Harwin, Bachar Alrouh, Mary Ryan and Jo Tunnard and the Brunel University London. Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, May 2014.

Building Better Courts: Lessons from London's Family Drug and Alcohol Court. The New Economics Foundation, Stephen Whitehead. July 2014.

The Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) Evaluation Project. FDAC Research Team, Brunel University:  Professor Judith Harwin, Mary Ryan, Jo Tunnard, Dr Subhash Pokhrel, Bachar Alrouh, Dr Carla Matias, and Dr Momenian-Schneider, May 2011.