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The 26 week time limit in care proceedings - fact or fiction?

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Coronavirus and children in care or care proceedings

When a local authority has serious concerns about the safety and welfare of a child or children, they begin what is known as ‘pre-proceedings’. Children’s services will send a letter to the parents or carers of the child(ren), inviting them to a pre-proceedings meeting. At this meeting, children’s services will explain their concerns, and discuss what needs to be done to resolve these. The pre-proceedings process lasts on average 6-8 months, with meetings taking place roughly every 6 weeks.

If after this period of time the local authority still feel that the concerns about the welfare of the child(ren) have not been addressed, they will begin the ‘care proceedings’ process, which is when they will lodge an application with the family court explaining the issues and, in serious circumstances, requesting the removal of the child(ren) from the care of their parent or carer. The court will then list a hearing date for the parties to attend.

What is the 26-week timetable?

The rule is that care proceedings should not exceed 26 weeks. This limit was introduced by the 2014 Children and Families Act, and its introduction was aimed at reducing the time taken to complete important decisions about children’s futures. At the time it was known that on average over a year was being taken to finalise court proceedings, which was clearly too long and change was long overdue. It is well recognised that delay can be very harmful to children and families. Court proceedings are often a daunting, intimidating and a frightening process for children and families.

Resistance to the 26-week limit came from the concern that a rigid deadline could mean that cases may be rushed through with not all necessary evidence considered and with parents and other family members not being given a fair chance to demonstrate an ability to change and meet the needs of their children. Wherever possible, all agree that children are better off being brought up within their birth family. It is only when the children’s welfare demands that they cannot be brought up within their birth family that the state should intervene.

The 26-week timetable in practice

The Ministry of Justice has recently published its quarterly family law statistics for October –December 2017. The figures show that the average length of time for a care or supervision case to conclude was 28 weeks; only 57% of cases were concluded within the 26-week prescribed recommendation.

The reasons why not all care cases are concluded within 26 weeks includes the fact that a number of family judges continue to allow a certain degree of flexibility to ensure that all necessary evidence is available before life changing decisions are made. In care cases where the outcome could be for a child not to be returned home to their parents and the plan is instead one for long term foster care or even adoption, a judge must be certain that the correct decision has been reached. The right to a family life is a fundamental one and must be given proper consideration, however the overriding principle is that the welfare of the child is paramount and must come first.

Sometimes, the 26 week limit must be extended as a family member has put themselves forward at a late stage in the proceedings to be assessed as an alternative carer. In these circumstances, enquiries must be made by the local authority, who have a duty to explore all viable family members and make attempts where possible to keep the child in their birth family if it is in the child’s best interests.

It may also be the case that the judge feels that the child’s parents need just that little bit of extra time to demonstrate that they have taken the local authority’s concerns on board and that they have made the necessary changes to enable the child to be safely returned to their care.

How Stephensons can help

If you are involved with the local authority and there is the possibility that care proceedings may be issued, Stephensons’ has unrivalled experience dealing with some of the most challenging cases involving social services intervention to removal of children including cases involving allegations of serious injuries and child neglect. If you need to speak to a solicitor about social services involvement or care proceedings, call our family law team today on 01616 966 229.

By Andrew Mountain and Megan Ryan-Loughran in the family law department