In April 2012 a monitoring system was introduced for care proceedings. Every care case issued thereafter would be expected to complete within 26 weeks from date of issue, with cases only being permitted to run over this time limit should there be exceptional circumstances amounting to a justifiable reason for delay.

The introduction of the 26 week time limit has been criticised by many, including Martha Cover, Co-chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children, who deemed the timescale “impracticable’, and there continues to be debate as to whether this timescale will need to be increased.

Some cases will of course be capable of conclusion earlier than 26 weeks, however research has indicated that this figure could be as low as 30%.

Lengthy proceedings are not in the child’s best interests, particularly if there is no reasonable prospect of a successful rehabilitation. Delays can cause problems such as less likelihood of securing a long-term, stable placement; damage to a child’s development; or exposure to harmful parenting/neglect should the child remain placed at home.  In addition, significant delays are likely to cause distress to the parents involved in proceedings.

Whilst it is important to prevent delay, this must be balanced with the child’s right to enjoy family life with their biological family. Care proceedings may be permitted to run over the 26 week time limit in exceptional circumstances.

An exceptional circumstance could be where the parents of the child have made significant progress to alleviate the Local Authority’s initial concerns and a plan of rehabilitation of the child to their care may be recommended. Assessments may have identified courses or therapeutic works which should be undertaken prior to rehabilitation. Such works may take a considerable amount of time. The decision therefore has to be made as to whether the child should remain in foster placement until such time as works are completed by the parents. Any purposeful, justifiable reason for delay must be recorded on the face of any Court Order as such, citing as much information as possible.

I have been involved in some cases which have concluded within the expected timeframe and some which have run over. In the latter cases, there has always been a purposeful reason for delay and the Court/Local Authority have explored all possibilities of rehabilitation to parents or family placements where there was a reasonable prospect of success. In cases concluding less than 26 weeks, this has usually been owing to the fact that the parents did not engage with the Local Authority or other professionals making assessment impossible. This of course is not a justifiable reason for delay and decisions can be made in absence of the parents should they fail to engage. It is therefore vital to work with the Local Authority and Court.

Many parents involved in care proceedings may think that the system is against them. This is not the case. The paramount concern of the Court is the welfare of the child. This element will remain constant even where the timescale may differ. Decisions are not entered into lightly and are always made with the best interests of the child at heart.

Here at Farleys we have a number of Solicitors specialising in Care Proceedings acting for parents, children, interveners and Local Authorities. Should you require advice or legal representation through care proceedings please do not hesitate to contact us.