Prolonged court delays scar children for life

The biggest intrusion by the state into family life is the removal of a child from its birth parents. So it is absolutely right that the courts should make the final decision, whether it is for a temporary or a permanent arrangement.

However, it is paramount that there are proper checks because there are judgments to be made that are not always obvious.

In cases that come to court, about four in five children are removed from their parents. The child’s interests must come first, not the interests of the parents. The child is the only wholly innocent party in these distressing cases.

But the child’s interests are, in part, best served by a speedy resolution. If removal is the right thing to do, then it is best to carry it out quickly and effectively, reducing the period while the child is in danger and the trauma of a lengthy contested process.

In fact, the 4,320 cases dealt with by the courts in England and Wales between July and September last year took an average of 55 weeks to resolve. The 10 cases in Rhyl took an average of 87 weeks. Just try to imagine what it must be like for a child – or indeed a parent – going through such an extended process, and how disruptive it must be beyond anything else that is going on.

So it is some relief that the justice minister Jonathan Djanogly has committed the government to reducing court delays. He supports mediation as an alternative to court proceedings, and that must be a positive step. In other areas, mediation supports a less confrontational approach that is more likely to lead to an understanding of the real issues.

The problem, of course, is that mediation is like all other early intervention: there are up-front costs that can only be recouped later through a speedier and more effective system with fewer court appearances.

But in all that we do, we must start by looking through the eyes of the child. The scars caused by being left for an indeterminate but lengthy period with an inadequate or abusive family will take many years to heal – if they ever do.

John Freeman CBE is a former director of children’s services and is now a freelance consultant Read his blog at