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Strong support among local authorities for 26 week time limit in care proceedings

DfE publishes research into care applications in 21 local authorities

The Department for Education has published research looking at care applications in 21 local authorities (LAs) and how long they take. The report - Family justice review: how care applications vary in different LAs - outlines findings around practices in local authorities and courts.

The report, which is the third and final family justice review report, found that there is strong support for the system-wide focus on improved timeliness of decision-making that informed the revised PLO and the 26 week timeframe for completing care proceedings. Although some authorities were not meeting the 26 week timeframe, there had been a reduction in the timescales for completing proceedings in all of the local authorities that participated in this study.

One of the most striking features of this study was the degree of similarity between LAs in terms of their approaches to practice, and also the similarity in the challenges they faced in implementing the revised PLO.

The majority of these local authorities had made substantial changes to pre-proceedings practice, which were markedly more embedded in some local authorities than others.

Participants in this study noted practice improvement in identifying extended family members as potential carers during pre-proceedings.

The majority of the authorities noted good working relationships with local judiciary and Cafcass guardians, often facilitated through Local Family Justice Board (LFJB) meetings, and in some cases through forums for informal discussions with the judiciary. Local judicial leadership was viewed as key to LAs being able to meet the 26 week timeframe.

The professional expertise of social workers is increasingly accepted in the court arena, with fewer experts being appointed by the court than in the period prior to reform. However, there were concerns that some judges did not have confidence in the work that LAs are doing at the pre-proceedings stage (or earlier) and were ordering repeat assessments. Concerns were also raised about judges at times going beyond their remit with regard to specifying the details of care plans, especially when adoption is recommended by the LA.

Some local authorities noted an increase in the number of care orders at home being made. This was perceived to be an adaptation in response to the risk arising from the reduced time available to test whether positive changes in parenting capacity could be sustained over a longer period.

Pressure from limited court availability to list cases within 26 weeks was discussed by many of these local authorities. This was seen to be a consequence of various factors including the increase in care applications being made and a sufficiency of judges to hear cases.

For the full report, please click here.