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10 December 2013
Having recently attended a Roadshow on the modernisation of the family court it got me thinking about the new changes that have been introduced in care proceedings and how this will affect parents and the child/children involved.
The revised changes came into force on the 1st July 2013 and a final version will be produced in April 2014 which will hopefully iron out any problems and make any final adjustments. I had my first experience of how these changes may affect parents in a recent case where the Local Authority had not served the papers on time, meaning my client had one day to respond to the Local Authority application. How is that fair I hear you scream, well this is now the future for us Care Lawyers and parents need to act quickly when served with any court papers received by the Local Authority.
What do these changes mean?
In a nutshell, it means that care proceedings now have to be completed within 26 weeks. There is a strict timetable with greater emphasis placed on the first hearing, particularly on the Local Authority ensuring they are ready with all the facts and evidence from Day 1. Gone are the days when the court were inundated with reams of information from the Local Authority, everything needs to be much more succinct. The Local Authority must deliver from Day 1 and for those of us who represent parents, we have to be ready to respond.
How do these changes affect parents and children?
With so much focus on everything being completed within 26 weeks my concern is that we must not forget the most important thing, which is what is in the best interest of the children. We cannot become so focused on the timetable of 26 weeks that we lose track of what the key issues are in a case. We must ensure that parents needs are represented fairly, the proceedings dealt with justly and the main focus being on the children involved.
Yes we need to ensure there is no delay for decisions to be made about the children's future, however at what price? Parents need to be heard, they need a voice, they need representation and the court should hear what they want, how they can change and why the children should stay at home. There case should not be prejudiced because the proceedings need to end in 26 weeks.
Can parents demonstrate that they can change within 26 weeks where they have drink or drugs issues or the case has issues of neglect? Parents who lack capacity will have less time to turn their problems around, is that really fair? Should they not be given time to deal with their issues and demonstrate they can change?
Is it just a cost cutting exercise?
The number of hearings has been reduced to just 3, so gone are the days of numerous hearings to resolve matters, it will all need to be undertaken within this timeframe. Is this just not the government savings costs; on court time and the public purse. I remain skeptical!
Will the courts be able to cope, can they deliver in what are often complex matters within the timescales set? Watch this space, clearly by April 2014 we will see whether this will be a problem, I personally feel it will be. If this happens and we do not get a final hearing for 3 months questions will be asked about whether we should have given parents more time.
Don't get me wrong, there should not be undue delay in cases, and they should not be allowed to drag on, but surely the judge should make the call regarding what is required in each individual case, based on the facts before them, not some script laid down by politicians. Whilst the changes might be good for the system it is likely in my opinion to result in unfairness. We must not forget that the court is potentially making a very draconian order, in which the children will not be brought up within the family. Solicitors for the parents will continue to fight to ensure fairness for parents and ensure that the parent's voices are heard and considered by the court when the court is making orders concerning their children.
Heidi Fleming is a qualified family solicitor specialising in Childcare law, representing parents.