LGA calls for overhaul of family courts as extent of delays revealed

The Local Government Association (LGA) has called for a radical reform of family courts after figures obtained by Barnardo’s revealed that some are taking up to 65 weeks to rule if it is safe for children to stay with their parents.

John Ransford, LGA chief executive, said that an increase in the number of children coming into the care system has placed a great strain on many of the services dedicated to helping and protecting them.

“Councils and their teams of frontline social workers are well aware of the need to reduce unnecessary process and bureaucracy so they can focus resources on the children themselves,” he added. “The family courts have failed to respond to the increasing number of children coming into care effectively enough. The lengthening court delays pose a very real danger to the vulnerable children councils want to be able to protect and it is clear radical changes are needed to make the system fit for purpose.”

Data obtained by Barnardo’s through a series of parliamentary questions shows that vulnerable children are waiting on average around 57 weeks in unstable family homes or emergency foster placements before a county court decides if they will be taken into care. In the family proceedings court the average time is 45 weeks – more than 10 months.

According to the charity, which published the figures today (9 August), a “postcode lottery” is governing the fate of children waiting for court decisions throughout England and Wales. In 2008/09 the county courts in Humber and South Yorkshire took an average of 46 weeks to come to a decision while those in London took 65 weeks.

“A year of a child’s life is an inordinate amount of time for them to be trapped in desperate limbo, unclear of their future and very possibly at risk,” said Martin Narey, Barnardo’s chief executive. “During this time, these children might remain at home with neglectful or abusive birth families or be living in emergency foster care, expected to settle with families they may subsequently have to leave.”

Barnardo’s has called for a number of measures to be taken by ministers in an attempt to shift the current culture within family courts, such as a 30-week target for all cases, with a 12-week fast-track system for children aged under 18 months. Other measures include family group conferencing for all children and families to identify potential kinship carers, training for court staff and improved links between legal and social work professionals.