A postcard from the President…

So I go away on holiday for a week and, whilst my focus is on knitting and farting around in the back garden, and the rest of the world is breathlessly tweeting about olympic medals, CAFCASS and The President slip out three distinct reform bombshells, all with a common purpose : managing the ever rising number of care applications in the context of the ever diminishing pot of funds. Like we wouldn’t notice…huh!

See The President’s 14th View here and CAFCASS in CYPNow here, and also here, in which local cash limited budgets for CAFCASS areas are mooted (see page 11 in which a pricing schedule for section 7 reports is mooted). I moaned recently on twitter about this idea, remembering the annual “we’ve run out of funds” hilarity for the poor sods who desperately wanted the access supervised contact via CAFCASS, who were told they had to wait a further 3 months until the next payday. I was then contacted by CAFCASS Comms and asked what my tweets had meant (I know – yikes, eh?). I told ’em that this was an annual event in my neck of the woods until at least a couple of years ago, and was told that hopefully this was now a thing of the past. It does indeed appear to be a thing of the past at present : it may, however, also be a thing of the future, based on the sketchy description of these limited cash budgets that we have been given. You know guys, if you make us guess what the plan is, we might imagine it wrong…don’t complain if we get in a flap.

The gap since the President’s last “View” is, by my reckoning, about a year. In the interregnum we’ve seen much happen, latterly Settlement Conferences appeared (as if by magic). The fourteenth view attempts a “Calm Down, Dear” to the hyperventilating ALC. “Settlement Conferences, it’s only a pilot dear!” says The Pres. Bound to be a Winner. We shall see. The President may protest that the ethos of these conferences is not to pressurise parents into capitulating, but that may not be how it feels from their end of the barrel. And it’s all well and good to say it’s a pilot, but what I’d like to know is who’s flying the plane? The President says this is something which is judicially led. There is no reason to think that is not so, although I suspect that not all judges are likely to enthusiastically embrace this pilot. But, to torture the aeronautical metaphor a little further – the judicial pilot still needs clearance to land from Air Traffic Control. This is a MoJ pilot, with MoJ funds. It is clearly designed to try and save funds through a reduction in expensive final hearings. This is no bad thing in itself. But whilst we all love an Easyjet price tag, it is still *quite* important that the landing gear doesn’t fall off and the plane lands safely at its destination. Who gets the final say as to whether this judicially led pilot is rolled out? And who decides the criteria? (On a parallel note, I am told that the MoJ (with no fanfare) have recently pulled the plug on the drug testing pilots that appeared to unstick so many cases. I haven’t seen any announcement setting out why, or any published analysis of the effectiveness and cost / efficiencies of the scheme and we’ve had no guidance issued on “the plan” going forwards or even formal notification the problem is going to re-emerge. I’m not sure yet what we are supposed to do with those cases involving LiPs who can’t pay for hair strand testing, but whose cases (and relationship with their children) are going to be once again held up or stymied with out it.) – but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t “judicially led”.)

What’s more Judges – particularly those with managerial responsibility – remain very obviously under statistical and budgetary pressure – average case duration, allocated annual budgets of sitting days etc. which the purists amongst us might suggest have the potential to impair judicial independence. Is it not understandable to worry just a little that these pressures bearing down upon the judges will transfer inadvertently or overtly to parents and their legal representatives who awkwardly insist on a trial? Yes I know, I should calm down dear.

Anyway, it’s only a pilot. Whilst nobody was consulted much before it started, the relevant professional bodies and interested parties are now in a position to keep an eye on this and feed back on how it has gone in due course – it may be successful, as reportedly it has been in Canada. So, watch this space.

The second stealth missile delivered by The President in his Fourteenth Postcard from Summer Hollibobs was the “the tandem model is sacrosanct, except when it’s not” bombshell. It’s all a bit confusing :

The tandem model is fundamental to a fair and just care system. Only the tandem model can ensure that the child’s interests, wishes and feelings are correctly identified and properly represented. Without the tandem model the potential for injustice is much increased. I would therefore be strongly opposed to any watering down of this vital component of care proceedings.

And then (with an interlude in which The President opines that we are brassic) :

The MoJ, with my support, is investigating whether there is scope for a reformed level of representation for children in public law cases and how a reformed model might work in practice. 

Say what? What is this “reformed level of representation” of which you speak?

From my perspective, the focus of this is the question of whether, at certain stages in the proceedings and at certain type of hearing, there could properly be scope for dispensing with the attendance of some, or even, in some circumstances, all, of the child’s professional team.

Oh. So you mean that the tandem model can be suspended at hearings that aren’t really that important. That would be those pointless hearings that we no longer hold because the PLO has streamlined the system so that only hearings that are really essential are held (in order to save funds), and each hearing should be a focused and purposeful demonstration of active judicial case management with collective participation and responsibility?

Maybe he means CMH’s? Where critical case management decisions are made and where a ball dropped at this early stage can lead to an evidence gap or ineffective final hearing and delay further down the line? Nope. Can’t be those. And anyway, where a Guardian cannot attend or it is accepted by all his attendance is not essential the court can and does (on occasion) excuse the Guardian’s attendance – because the lawyer will be there keeping an eye.

Maybe he means FCMH’s? Where a single CMH wasn’t enough and the court has decided that actually, this case is complex enough, or has got messy enough due to previous problems, delay or non-compliance to warrant a further hearing. As above, Guardian can be excused where justified…No, he can’t mean the child would not need to be represented at those, surely…

Maybe he means FoF hearings? You know, the split hearings we never hold any more (ssshhhh, don’t tell him – we really all do still hold them)? He probably doesn’t mean those because the Guardian rarely attends those hearings throughout in any event, and the solicitor for the child is usually the lead solicitor for any experts – so they kind of need to be present to chief the critical witnesses – and report back to the Guardian who is off doing four simultaneous final hearings and an EPO whilst juggling a plate on her nose.

IRHs? Surely not? The child has to be represented if the other parties are to agree a final disposal about that child’s life. Otherwise, what’s the point of the child being a party (as undoubtedly they have to be for the purposes of article 6). He can’t mean that.

Maybe he means Final hearings? At which the complexion of a case can completely change in a moment, during which the Guardian will need to give instructions in order that their representative can cross examine witnesses – and ultimately give evidence herself. Nope. Can’t mean those.

And let’s not forget that the LAA already require the solicitor for the child to conduct all hearings where humanly possible, meaning counsel is less often instructed on behalf of children than for the other parties. Or that the LAA is even more difficult to persuade that leading counsel is necessary in the case of a child party than a parent.

So, I confess I’ve not a scooby what this means or what exactly is being discussed privately at the MoJ. But I can’t at present think of any scenario in which the absence of a child’s legal team from hearings in care proceedings could be anything other than the “watering down” of the tandem model that the President is so averse to. Of course, it does not help that these things pop up out of the blue, blueprints half drawn before we even know they are afoot. It does not inspire confidence. Even now there is no information that I can locate on justice.gov.uk or gov.uk about the “data-collecting exercise in 12 courts” or the second phase (in which it is proposed that, with the involvement of the judiciary, there will be exploration of “how a reformed model of representation could work in practice”). Note that here there is no assertion that this is judicially led. One interpretation of this view is that the President is publicly laying down a marker to the MoJ that whilst they are exploring this particular issue, there is a line he will not let them cross : note the President’s “From my perspective” here :

From my perspective, the focus of this is the question of whether, at certain stages in the proceedings and at certain type of hearing, there could properly be scope for dispensing with the attendance of some, or even, in some circumstances, all, of the child’s professional team.   [my emphasis]

and his “so far as I am concerned” here :

so far as I am concerned, none of this can be allowed to prejudice the fundamentals of the tandem model. [my emphasis]

Goodness only knows what the MoJ have in mind – and again, its not reassuring only to hear of it via The President and once its already half baked. But the more I read the “View”, the more I think this may be a “By all means, take a look and see if you can find some savings – we recognise we have to help cut costs where we can – but don’t think you can mess with the tandem model!” coded message. I hope so anyway…

A personal sidenote : I’d like to see a stepping up by the minority of childrens’ representatives who still see a guardian brief as an easy brief and a passive or responsive role. It isn’t. It’s the hardest sort, and one bears a great responsibility as either solicitor or counsel for the child. When the wheels come off cases, it is sometimes legitimate to ask why, of all parties, the child’s team did not see it coming and raise it at the CMH or the advocates meeting? The role of solicitor for the child, when performed as it should be, is crucial and can have a significant postiive impact on case progression and efficiency. Its loss at any hearing, whether because an advocate is actually or effectively absent, is to introduce significant risk both of injustice AND wasted expenditure – as I think, at moments, the President’s 14th view acknowledges.

Anyway, hollibobs over tomorrow…Booo hoo.

5 thoughts on “A postcard from the President…

  1. A Social Worker

    The current legal system will need further change. There has been a lot of tinkering around the edges but it clearly isn’t delivering and those in charge are not equipped to lead the change.

    Those in the legal system (solicitors, barristers, judges etc.) need to take some ownership here because I really can see us move towards a Scottish model and most cases being dealt with through Children’s Hearings (a model I have worked in and rate very highly) and most people in the legal system needing to seek a different kind of employment. The adversarial system has its place, it has one in Scotland, but it is not the best system out there. Fighting to keep this system with a fanatical belief that it is the best one will render those in it blind to what’s coming over the hill.

    • When I last looked at the Scottish Children’s Hearings system, I thought that it only applied in cases where safe care arrangements could be negotiated, and that serious child protection cases were transferred to a sherriff’s court. So didn’t look all that different to E&W system. I’m probably out of date. Would be interesting to hear more about how it works.

  2. A Social Worker

    http://www.chscotland.gov.uk/the-childrens-hearings-system/how-does-the-childrens-hearings-system-work/

    Take a look at a very basic breakdown of what the system looks like. The court system does exist but it used and depended on far less frequently than in England. The Children’s Hearing does have the power to place children in foster care, family members, secure accommodation or to continue running with the children at home.

    The Children’s Hearing system is not a replacement to court but it is a way for the Local Authority as well as the parents to be held accountable for its actions. I particularly liked the emphasis on having children present at the hearings and found that more collaborative approaches were developed with families. Only very serious concerns escalated to the court system.

    To describe it using our language, I’d say it is a cross over of a Child Protection Conference/LAC review chaired by a legally trained person and made up of magistrates and attended by the child (depending on age), family and all professionals.

    It is a model used increasingly around the world and particularly effective in those countries where adoption is less popular and resources more focused on rehabilitation to the family (as opposed to absolute decisions about children’s trajectories) or keeping families together. Of course, there are going to be some limitations and issues but it is the most effective model I have seen in the four different countries I have worked in child protection.

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