“Barnardo’s says court delays damage children” so reported the BBC on 9 August 2010. This echoed sentiments expressed by Sir Mark Potter, former president of the family division and head of family justice for England and Wales in June 2010 when he told the Guardian: "Delays are causing children to be left for a considerable proportion of their early lives in atmospheres of violence, high emotion and parental dispute which, if prolonged, is bound to interfere with their long-term development and give rise to problems in adolescence and later life."
The need for children to have certainty as soon as practicable is widely recognised and the principle that delays in court proceedings are harmful to the child is enshrined in the Children Act 1989. Whilst courts aim to conclude care proceedings within a 40-week period (Public Law Outline: April 2008), there is constant reference to the child’s timetable and of course each case needs to be judged on its own merits with the individual needs of the individual child in mind.
Those involved in this area of law, including social workers, solicitors and judges, are skilled, experienced and highly committed to safeguarding the welfare of children and their families even when faced with huge pressures on resources and funding. Any suggestion that care proceedings are simply delayed for no purposeful reason would appear to be unfounded.
Barnardo’s wants to see a 30-week limit on the time taken to conclude care proceedings. Barnardo’s does not, however, suggest what should happen when the guillotine falls at the end of that 30-week limit. Should the case conclude without all the available evidence? This begs the questions whether children would indeed remain in or return to abusive homes because the evidence, upon which our justice system is correctly based, would not be available to the court.
Parents do of course have the ‘right to a fair trial’, as do the children. It is the most draconian of state powers to remove a child from its parents. It is a power too draconian to be taken lightly.
Perhaps a better balance needs to be found between avoiding delay and obtaining the full facts before any final decision is made.
By family solicitor, Gillian Tuck