Family Courts: Worcestershire
Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire, Conservative)
To ask the Secretary of State for Justice what recent assessment he has made of the waiting times for Family Court hearings in child protection cases in Worcestershire.
Jonathan Djanogly (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (HM Courts Service and Legal Aid), Justice; Huntingdon, Conservative)
The Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) are working with system partners (Department for Education, CAFCASS (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service), local authorities) to improve family performance across the board, particularly in relation to the ‘public law' cases that deal with child protection issues. This work includes assessing waiting times at courts, and working to ensure that all courts have sufficient capacity to ensure that public law cases can progress in a timely manner.
To improve court capacity, HMCTS has allocated an extra 4,000 county court sitting days across England and Wales in this financial year, which represents an overall increase of 8,000 days compared with 2009-10. Of the 4,000 extra days released, 680 have been allocated to the Midlands region, and 31 of these have been allocated for use at Worcester county court. This represents an increase to Worcester's dedicated family sitting day allocation of just over 20%. HMCTS has also ring-fenced the sitting days allocated for family cases in the magistrates courts to ensure that they are used as intended. HMCTS are monitoring the effect that these extra days are having on the timely progression of cases, and have developed regional action plans to ensure that local performance is improved, and that any local barriers to performance improvement are tackled.
The progression of child protection cases is managed within a judicially led framework known as the Public Law Outline (PLO). The PLO specifies that the first hearing should take place within six days from issue, and then a case management conference should be held within 45 days from issue. There are no targets for when issue resolution and final hearings should take place, but the PLO is clear that these should be at a pace that is consistent with the child's individual needs and circumstances. It must be noted however that all parties— legal representatives, local authority representatives, CAFCASS guardians, parents—must be available to attend that hearing in order for it to be effective. Waiting times for court hearings are therefore dependent not only on court capacity, but on the availability of the parties and other agencies to attend the dates offered. Public law hearings can often be up to five days, which will obviously affect the parties' ability to attend at short notice. In some cases the court will need to arrange an urgent hearing, for example to consider an application for an emergency protection order. In such cases the court will make all efforts to ensure that an emergency hearing takes place immediately. The HMCTS action plans outlined above also include a range of activities to improve adherence to the PLO, and to liaise with CAFCASS or local authorities on how attendance for hearings can be improved.
The independent Family Justice Review, chaired by David Norgrove, put forward recommendations to improve the progression and timeliness of public law cases. The Government response, published in February this year, set out the range of actions that the Government would take to address the shortcomings identified by the review, and take its recommendations forward. One such recommendation is the establishment of a dedicated Family Justice Board, which will have the key responsibility for improving performance nationally. This national board will be supported by a network of local Family Justice Boards based around local courts and local authorities. These local boards are currently being established and will tackle local performance issues, and ensure open communication lines between courts and local child protection agencies.
While the Government do not collect statistics on how long parties wait for hearings at particular courts, we do measure how long it takes for child protection cases to be completed. In Worcestershire, overall average case duration for care and supervision applications for October to December 2011, the latest period available, is as follows:
Worcester county court: 70 weeks (revised since the provisional figure of 68 was published on
Worcestershire Family Proceedings Courts: 44 weeks
The national average for care and supervision case duration currently stands at 55 weeks, and all local case durations can be found on the Open Justice website:
The Government are committed to reducing this average both nationally and at all local courts, and intend to legislate for a six month time limit in child protection cases. In the meantime all agencies have been tasked, under the stewardship of the Family Justice Board, with improving their performance and reducing case duration significantly in advance of the time limit being implemented.