The Court of Appeal has warned family judges not to adjourn final decisions in public law proceedings just to 'press the pause button'.
Lord Justice Peter Jackson, in handing down judgment last week in S-L (Children: Adjournment), said adjourning a decision "is a positive choice that requires proper weighing-up of the advantages and disadvantages and a lively awareness that the passage of time has consequences".
In the case, the Law Gazette reported that a local authority was challenging a recorder's decision made in May to adjourn applications for care and placement orders for a three-year-old and her seven-month-old brother.
Lord Justice Peter Jackson said that while in some cases involving children, there can be good reasons for adjourning a final decision in order to obtain necessary information, the overriding obligation is to deal with the case justly.
"There is a trade-off between the need for information and the presumptive prejudice to the child of delay... Judges in the family court are well used to finding where the balance lies in the particular case before them and are acutely aware that for babies and young children the passage of weeks and months is a matter of real significance," he added.
Public law proceedings are subject to a 26-week statutory timetable. Yet proceedings for the three-year-old child began on 3 September 2018 and while they began for her brother on 24 January this year.
Lord Jackson said the recorder was obliged to explain why the timetable needed to be extended, concluding that the adjournment was wrong.
He said: "The parents had been intensively assessed in relation to one child and there was no gap in the evidence to justify a further assessment in relation to two children for whom delay in decision-making was a pressing negative feature. The recorder did not refer to the statutory timetabling obligations or explain why further extension was necessary."
The recorder's decision was also announced "without context or coherent explanation".
Lord Jackson ordered the matter to be remitted for an expedited final hearing given the "sensitive ages of these children".
The decision was backed by Lord Justice Green and Lord Justice Floyd.
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