But the process does succeed in diverting cases from court
A major new research report on the pre-proceedings process shows how local authorities, lawyers and the courts have operated this part of the 2008 PLO reforms.
The pre-proceedings process aimed to divert cases from care proceedings, alternatively to ensure applications were better prepared and narrow the issues so that care proceedings could be completed more speedily. Where a local authority has decided to bring care proceedings, the process requires it to send the parents a ‘letter before proceedings’, inviting them to a meeting to discuss its concerns. The letter entitles parents to legal aid so they can attend the meeting with a lawyer.
The research was conducted in six local authorities in England and Wales, which made substantial use of the pre-proceedings process. The research showed that the process was successful in diverting a quarter of cases from court, either because parental care improved or alternative arrangements were agreed. However, the courts appeared to take no account of the pre-proceedings stage for cases that were not diverted. These cases took just as long as those without pre-proceedings, 52 weeks on average.
Key points of the research included:
- Use of the pre-proceedings process varies between local authorities. Those in the study used it in almost all cases where there was time to do so, around half of all cases where care proceedings were started.
- A third of pre-proceedings cases involved pre-birth assessments. Meetings were used to agree assessments, services and /or alternative care.
- Use of the process was supported by social workers and their managers who saw it as a more respectful way to work with families at risk of care proceedings.
- Parents felt supported by having their lawyer at the pre-proceedings meeting; for some this helped them to engage with children’s services and improve care.
- The pre-proceedings process did succeed in diverting cases from court. Based on the file sample, about a quarter of cases did not enter care proceedings; in a third of these children were protected by kin care or foster care; and in two-thirds by improvements in care at home.
- Care proceedings were not shorter where the pre-proceedings process had been used. Courts did not appear to take particular account of this work.
- The pre-proceedings process delayed decisions for children who entered care proceedings. Court applications were delayed by attempts to use the process and sometimes by failure to recognise family care was not improving.
The research was conducted by Professor Judith Masson and Kay Bader at the School of Law, Bristol University and Jonathan Dickens and Julie Young at the School of Social Work, University of East Anglia. The report, Partnership by law? and a summary can be downloaded.
SOURCE: Family Law Week