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Soaring care applications due to ‘local authority behaviour’

Sir James Munby warns that there is no strategy for tackling the current “crisis” in the care system

The president of the family courts division has spoken out about the “crisis” in the care system which has resulted in a massive surge of new cases coming through the courts.

Sir James Munby said the courts were “ill prepared” for the rise in care applications and warned that there is no clear strategy in place to deal with the increasing number of court cases where children can potentially be separated from their parents following an application from local authorities.

“We are facing a crisis and, truth be told, we have no very clear strategy for meeting the crisis,” said Munby.

Cafcass figures show the number of care applications has rapidly risen from 6,613 in 2005-6 to an estimated 14,713 in 2016.

While figures fluctuated modestly in the four years from 2005‐6 to 2008‐9, there was a dramatic increase in 2009-10 to 8,832, a rise in a single year of 35%, whether compared with the previous year’s figure of 6,488 or the average figure of 6,532 for the preceding four years.

This rise, says Munby, has been attributed to the consequences of the Baby Peter tragedy. Baby Peter Connelly died in 2007 after sustaining fifty separate injuries at the hands of his mother, step-father and his brother.

The Family Justice Review in 2011 recommended that the time limit for the completion of care and supervision proceedings should be set at six months. Munby said the average duration of care cases fell rapidly month by month and had flat-lined over the last year. “That it has not, as yet, begun to climb must be a matter for congratulation to everyone involved in making the system work,” said Munby adding that to keep the line level while caseloads increase by 14% is “an astonishing achievement”.

However, he warned that the achievement could not be maintained as caseloads continue to rise and with people working at “full stretch” in the system, Munby said he “will not ask people to work harder”.

The implications of the crisis are two-fold, he added, with the system struggling to cope with existing resources and the number of care cases driving up the cost of legal aid.

Addressing the causes of the increase in care applications, Munby said he did not believe that child abuse and neglect could rise 14, let alone 20% in a year and said that local authority behaviour must be playing a “significant role”. However further research was urgently needed to make future predictions, he added.

Immediate future steps should include maximising the use of Recorders and Section 9 judges and to speed up the process of judicial recruitment following the retirement, resignation or death of sitting judges.

Improvements to handling cases should include:

  • Introducing page limits for certain categories of documents which are frequently too long.
  • Local authority threshold statements need to be shorter, more focused and Re A [2015] EWFC 11 compliant.
  • Efforts should be made to ensure the effectiveness of the Case Management Hearing so as to minimise the need for further directions hearings
  • More stringent scrutiny needs to be applied when applications for experts are being considered
  • Every effort must be made to ensure the effectiveness of the Issues Resolution Hearing so that the final hearing focuses on what is really and appropriately in issue.

Munby reiterated his previous calls for new, innovative and better ways of handling cases to be sought.

However, while there is scope for improving and streamlining the process, Munby warned that there should be no compromise from the fundamentals.

He concluded that the excellent work being done by FDAC problem-solving courts and projects such as Pause who focus on addressing the underlying problems of the women who find themselves losing successive children in repeat care proceedings.

“If we can only solve, as FDAC and Pause so successfully solve, the ‘problem’ then the consequence is a reduction in the number of new cases coming into the system,” Sir Munby concluded.

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