WHY CARE?

Background to this post appears here.

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Alas, this is not the beautifully crafted discussion piece I had wanted to post, but I cannot devote as much time to this as I would like, and so I offer it as your starter for ten in its slightly disjointed and unpolished form…

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Firstly, let me explode the myth that the outcome of care applications is inevitable and that therefore care proceedings are purposeless.

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Almost all care applications result in orders of some kind. Most result in permanent or long term removal, many in adoption. Only a very few are withdrawn because the evidential hurdle of threshold cannot be met. In that limited sense applications made are by and large justifiably made (The alternative viewpoint is that almost all applications succeed because the courts are a mere rubber stamp – I don’t subscribe to that view).

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But many applications result in different orders than originally anticipated or sought (supervision orders, residence orders or special guardianship orders) or with less draconian care plans (care order with a placement at home, a plan for eventual rehabilitation, a change in placement type, or identification of more suitable carers, more structured or substantial support package for parents or child, proper financial and support package for kinship carers). These changes in plan and outcome are on one level matters of detail, but it is in matters of detail that long term outcomes for children and families can be radically altered – the chaos theory of family law. Complaint was made at the review session that there is an increasing tendency for courts to micro-manage care planning and that this is inappropriate. In the first place I don’t think that this is an accurate representation of the law or of practice. But really, why shouldn’t care plans be scrutinised? If they are appropriate and properly thought through there will be no problem – detailed scrutiny is necessary where, as is sadly often the case, they are ill thought through or poorly justified. The extent to which courts scrutinise the detail of care planning is in direct correlation with the quality of the care planning, and the confidence of the courts in it.

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Court scrutiny, the involvement of a Guardian, appropriate activity on the part of parents lawyers, are all forms of wholly appropriate and effective pressure with which to focus minds and leverage better care planning on the part of Local Authorities. It is tempting to think that if Local Authority care plans achieve approval of the court for their care plans in most cases then we can trust them to do the job without bothering with the rigmarole of expensive and long winded court proceedings. Tempting but foolhardy. There is another line of thinking (that sometimes social workers or other Local Authority employees who have been in the job for just a little too long blurt out loud before they have had time to check themselves – the very jaded are oblivious to the raising of eyebrows all around them): ‘the court process is just jumping through hoops and ticking boxes, court ordered assessments are never successful: it’s just a waste of time’. And there’s the nub of the problem. We all despair sometimes of clients who mess up the hard fought for assessment, but when those who are making decisions about the permanent removal of children from their birth family start from an expectation that the parents will fail, decision making can be and is often flawed. And so, rather than court proceedings existing simply to make miseries of the lives of social workers and local authority managers, they exist to ensure that preconceived ideas do not act as a barrier to rigorous and appropriate attempts to explore ways of keeping children with their birth families before severing ties with them.

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Let this not be seen as a broad criticism of social workers or local authorities. They are stressed, overworked, undersupported, badgered by management (who themselves are under pressures of a different kind), and vilified by the public and the press. They can’t do right for doing wrong and it must feel as if lawyers and courts are all part of the perpetual bombardment of negativity that social workers must endure (not so very unlike lawyers). No reasonable person would expect them to get things right all the time, especially in the feverish climate of post Baby-P and swingeing public sector cuts. There are many pressures on social workers and local authorities in general and the interests and views of local authorities responsible for many children may not always be one and the same as those of individual parents or children. And that is where the court performs an essential role. I can think of many cases where it is immediately apparent on issue that something has gone wrong, and it is through the court process that this is remedied. 2 examples:

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  • A case where a very young child was left for almost a year in the care of parents following the unexplained death of her twin sibling but where NAI by the parents was one possibility – it was only upon the belated issue of proceedings almost the appointment of a guardian that safeguards were put in place pending determination of the cause of injury and any possible perpetrator.
  • A case where learning impaired first time parents were assessed without reference to their learning difficulties and without any appropriate support to enable them to access support or learning or understand what was required of them being put in place. They failed the assessment, and another more appropriate assessment had to be commissioned, causing delay, anguish and wasted expense.

There are many more.

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I don’t suggest that the motivation of social work professionals is anything other than genuine and child focused (with the odd bad apple as is the case in any walk of life), but the court process is an important driver in ensuring rigour of approach, proper investment of resource and forward planning, as opposed to firefighting. And rather than disempowering or frustrating good social workers, the process is beneficial to Local Authorities because their judgment is validated.

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The healthy challenge to care planning and social work that court proceedings entail come not just from parents’ lawyers intent on filling their pockets by stringing things out, but from Guardians and children’s solicitors too, and even from the Official Solicitor on occasion when acting for hard done by parents. These are people who are motivated not by ‘parent’s rights’ without regard for the needs of the child, but who are seeking further thought, deeper thinking, reappraisal by local authorities in order to ensure the best outcomes for children. And it is a combination of the hard work and dedication of social workers and other agencies along with the involvement of the court and the court based professionals that ensures better quality outcomes for children.

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Although the role of Guardians is itself something of a hot potato at present, the role of the Guardian as an inherent part of the court process is crucial (see Jacqui Gilliat’s excellent summary of why).

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But it’s not just about detail:

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Its about the big issues too. It’s about public confidence in the administration of justice – already very low, but (notwithstanding a widespread perception by a certain number of parents and parents campaigners that the judiciary are part of a grand state conspiracy to snatch children from the bosom of their families) it would inevitably plummet to new depths if there were no independent external scrutiny of a local authority’s powers.

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It’s about proper limitation of the powers of the state – the most draconian of powers that the state has are to imprison us and to take away our children. If those powers are not routinely subject to the scrutiny of an independent court what is left? It would be an odd kind of civilised society where those in dispute over contracts and road traffic accidents could call upon the court’s protection whilst children could be taken away from their parents forever without expectation that a judge would have authorised that life altering course. How do we explain that to our children?

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It’s about following through on our commitments to the fundamental human rights of both child and parent – our rights to family life without interference except where necessary for the protection of children, our rights to fair trial, a child’s right to life. The need to save costs does not render these fundamental principles dispensable, we cannot put fundamental elements of the social contract in suspended isolation during times of financial hardship.

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Local Authorities would be foolish to think they can get it right all the time, and recent history tells us that they do not. We should not kid ourselves that they will be able to do so in future without the watchful eye of the court upon them, and with 25 – 40% less available resource. What’s more, it would be wrong to burden Local Authorities and frontline social workers (who are so often decried as baby snatchers by the ill informed) with such weighty decisions without the protective ratification of the courts.

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There are ways – many ways – in which the system could be improved. But the prospect of the unfettered removal of children by agents of the state is frightening in the extreme.

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It is difficult to envisage what alternative framework is in the minds of the review panel – whether safeguards would be in the form of judicial review of a local authority or some form of tribunal. It is not immediately apparent what economic sense the creation of a separate and less skilled tribunal would make (recent policy has been to consolidate court management and tribunals into fewer and larger organisations), and it is hard to see what advantage such tribunals would present over magistrates or judges. The key distinction between a court and a tribunal is the availability of legal representation and the expertise of the decision makers (and no doubt in family cases the appointment of a Guardian). Those are crucial features which cannot be abandoned without significant consequences for public confidence in the administration of justice, an almost inevitable breach of Article 6 rights to a fair trial by failing to ensure access to justice, and poorer outcomes for children and parents.

2 thoughts on “WHY CARE?

  1. Wholeheartedly agree.

    I think that much like the old saw about advertising, many assessments in care proceedings achieve nothing; the difficulty is that you can never know at the outset which ones will be fruitful and which ones will not. You can suspect, you can guess, you can estimate, but you can never be sure that this assessment will work, or that this parent won’t change.

    I’ve very often seen cases in which every single professional and lawyer is rooting for the parents to take the opportunity they’ve been given and are totally convinced that they will succeed, only to be let down; and I’ve seen cases with parents who appear utterly hopeless on paper get it together and with a lot of help and hard work turn it around.

    (Personally, I think I’ve now got a better than 50% ratio of children and families being together at the end of care proceedings, and that makes me substantially more happy than those who categorise Local Authorities as child-snatchers would ever believe)

    The current system isn’t perfect and there is much that could be done to improve it; and we’re clearly all going to be working in a financial climate that is a massive, massive gulf from what we are used to. I welcome the review, but I also hope there’s going to be some listening going on too.

  2. Provincial Solicitor

    Firstly, I agree with the proposition that not all proceedings result in care orders. There are many cases that result in a different order such as a supervision order or residence order to a different family member. It is rare for orders to be denied, but it does happen. Let me give you a couple of examples (disguised, of course – but true).

    1. An alcoholic mother who cannot get through the initial court hearing without a drink; but who gets through detoxification and rehabilitation succesfully resulting in the return of her children.

    2. Parents accused of breaking the limb of their toddler; with the intervention of an independent paediatrician, shown to accord with their description of what happened. Application withdrawn.

    These things would not have happened without a rigorous legal system and dedicated, knowledgeable lawyers and guardians. Pure and simple.

    I do not criticise social workers at all. I know how pressured they are, and that (as familoo says) they are driven by the best of intention. But, as in all walks of life, sometimes they get it wrong.

    I also note the number of critics of the current system. But what they never seem to do is describe a viable alternative. I suspect that, in many instances, they believe that lawyers are ‘fat cats’ who play the system and it is this that (at least in part) drives their criticism. Let me see if I can redress the balance a little.

    I paid in excess of £10,000 to get through law school. I have since gained 15 years of experience. I earn roughly the same as a police sergeant with three years in post, and well below a salaried GP in the NHS. Is the police sergeant a ‘fat cat’ sponging off the system? (and I don’t get overtime, and have to pay my own pension!).

    Don’t misunderstand me. I am not complaining. I think I get a reasonable salary in the current climate. And I would think my package is about average. But it does grate when I am perceived to be jumping into my jaguar (vauxhall actually) back to my mansion (er, not).

    Rant over for now. Been a long day and now I have to prepare for my court tomorrow.

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