WALES/ENGLAND – Call to curb scrutiny powers of family court judges

Family court judges should have their powers of scrutiny limited to core decisions, such as whether to take a child into care, kinship arrangements and permanency planning, according to a major report on the family justice system due out soon.

It recommends that judges should not have the power to scrutinise the detail of a council’s care plan, which may include details of whether a young person is placed in foster care or residential care or needs continuing therapeutic support, for example.

The recommendation is included in the final report of the Family Justice Review, which is expected to be published within weeks.

John Coughlan, director of children’s services for Hampshire Council and a member of the review panel, today gave delegates at the National Children and Adult Services Conference more detail about the recommendation. He said it would cut systemic delay and improve trust between courts and local authorities.

“In most cases, the threshold for care is fairly easy to establish but often there will be ongoing debates and re-hearings issued because of the minutae of the care plan,” he said. “This is unnecessary and leads to delay. What we’re saying is that judges should deal with the broad terms of care orders and leave local authorities to deal with the detail of the care plan.

“Courts are experts on the law. We are experts on the needs of the child. If we are going to be given parental responsibility then we should be trusted to do that properly. If we are not going to be allowed to do this properly then we might as well not be asked to do this at all.”

He said it was imperative that councils were “clear and confident” about their care plans and the evidence they gave to court, and that some local authority work had been substandard.

“Although I have been arguing our case, it has been pretty shaming to see some of our practicethe quality of some of our processes has been pretty poor,” he said.

“We need to get much better about what we put before the court. We have to ensure that we are sending social workers to court who have the right skills and abilities. If we send social workers into court who cannot write good reports, then woe betide us.”

Coughlan also bemoaned an over-reliance on expert witnesses, saying the review panel agreed that the system ought to be “much more proactive about challenging the need for second expert opinions”.

“We have a set of specific recommendations about this,” he added.

Systemic delays are ultimately caused by the search for absolute certainty, he said, warning that this was unrealistic. “Although it is right and legitimate to search for certaintywe have to understand that the search for absolute certainty is a misguided one and contributes to delay and damage for the child,” he said.

See more stories on the NCAS conference 2011

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