Judge warns of ‘untenable’ workload due to rise in looked after children applications

A rise in council applications to take children into care is making the workload of family courts “untenable”, a senior judge said.

Lord Justice McFarlane, a Court of Appeal judge based in London who specialises in family litigation, said there is a “crisis” that is not abating.

He raised concern in a speech launching a specialist report analysing the reasons behind a rise in “care proceedings” and the rise of the number of children in care.

The Care Crisis Review has been produced by The Nuffield Foundation, a charitable trust which funds research to advance social well-being and the Family Rights Group, a charity which works with parents of children in need.

Two years ago another senior judge said he wanted to find better ways of handling cases involving the care of children.

Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division of the High Court and the most senior family court judge in England and Wales, said in 2016 that the number of care cases continued to rise “seemingly relentlessly” and also spoke of a “crisis”.

Lord Justice McFarlane (pictured), who is due to take over as President of the Family Division of the High Court later this year when Sir James retires, has echoed those concerns.

“I consider that Sir James was fully justified in calling this a crisis and, as the continuing figures have borne out since, Sir James was plainly right to blow the whistle when he did,” said Lord Justice McFarlane.

“I, too, am clear that this is a crisis and I am extremely concerned to see that it is by no means abating.”

He added: “Whatever the cause of this rise in numbers may be, its effect, certainly from the perspective of the judges and the court staff, is that the workload, which prior to the rise was almost unsustainable, is now wholly untenable.”

Lord Justice McFarlane suggested that family court judges were seeing more cases involving allegations of “poor parenting” and “neglect”.

“In terms of the category of cases coming before the Family Court in care proceedings, we have always seen the top end of child abuse, those clear, and sometimes horrific, cases where it is plain that abuse has taken place,” he said.

“To my mind, the category of cases that are now coming before the court in greater numbers than was seen hitherto must, almost by definition, come from the opposite end of the spectrum of harm.

“They are likely to be cases of poor parenting and neglect and in such cases there is a need for the court to be astute as to the requirements of the threshold criteria.

“There may be a danger of the system slipping into the exercise of a broad benevolent discretion with courts accepting the need to help children who are generally in need, rather than strictly questioning whether the state of affairs for the particular child has indeed reached the level … sufficient to justify statutory orders.”

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