Child protection cases may surge as lockdown eases, says Family Division chief

Child protection cases may “surge” as Covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased, the most senior family judge in England and Wales has warned.

The president of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, said courts – which were already dealing with an “unprecedented” volume of cases – are anticipating an increase in workload as children return to school and social services departments are able to do more work.

Sir Andrew said that, apart from a dip in the first weeks of lockdown, applications to the Family Court have continued at pre-pandemic rates and there has been a significant increase in domestic abuse injunctions in some inner-city areas.

He said: “It is anticipated that, once social services are able to function more normally and once more children come out of lockdown and return to school, the volume of child protection cases may surge.”

The judge also said that, while courts – many of which were closed as the country went into lockdown – will begin reopening this month, it is unlikely things will return to normal until the end of the year or even next year.

In a document entitled The Road Ahead, published on the judiciary website on Tuesday, Sir Andrew said: “It is necessary to look at the road ahead because any earlier rose-tinted thoughts that ‘this will all be over by July’ have sadly evaporated and it is now clear that, whilst the situation of total lockdown may be gradually relaxed, the need for stringent social distancing restrictions is likely to remain for many months to come.

“It now seems sensible to assume that social distancing restrictions will remain in place for many months and that it is unlikely that anything approaching a return to the normal court working environment will be achieved before the end of 2020 or even the spring of 2021.

“The reality to be faced is that the Family Court must now, for a sustained period, seek to achieve the fair, just and timely determination of a high volume of cases with radically reduced resources in sub-optimal court settings.”

Sir Andrew said “nettles will need to be grasped” so hearings can go ahead either remotely, or with a hybrid of remote and in-court arrangements, in an effort to avoid delay, and that children’s welfare must be at the forefront of judges’ minds when making case management decisions.

He said: “The need to achieve finality in decision-making for children and families, the detrimental effect of delay and the overall impact on the wider system of an ever-growing backlog must form important elements in judicial decision making alongside the need for fairness to all parties.

“More positively, experience of remote hearings in the past two months has identified steps that can be taken to reduce the potential for unfairness, enabling cases to proceed fairly when previously they may have been adjourned.”

He also said there is an “enhanced” need to consider the well-being of judges and professionals involved in the Family Court system, and that “steps must be taken” to identify ways of reducing stress and “maintaining personal and professional well-being”.

Sir Andrew concluded: “The task ahead for the Family Court in the coming months is a daunting one of continuing to strive to make correct and timely decisions for children and families, in a just and fair manner, despite very severe restrictions on ordinary working.

“It is impossible not to have been profoundly impressed by the endeavour of all involved in the past 10 weeks – be they staff members, professionals, lay parties or judiciary – in working so hard and so effectively to deliver an outcome in as many cases as possible.

“A ‘can do’ approach has been evident at all turns despite the very real difficulties that have been thrown up by the current crisis.

“I am confident that this positive, problem-solving approach will continue to be seen throughout the period ahead in the Family Court, however long it may be.”

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