Part of the concerns raised by the Family Justice Review was the time scale of proceedings in the family court, and the effect damaging delays had upon the children concerned. The new Children and Families Act has addressed this matter; but for the better or worse?
Part 2 of the Children and Families Act 2014 addresses Family Justice. Section 14 of the Act concerns itself with “Care, supervision and other family proceedings: time limits and timetables.” This section lays out the guidelines for the expected time scale of proceedings in the family court, for greatest benefit to the welfare of the child.
In accordance with the new statutes, proceedings should be disposed of within 26 weeks. It was made very clear by Lord Munby that this is not an average time scale, it is not a guideline, it is a target that must be met; and the expectation is that, in many cases, proceedings should be disposed of within a lesser time scale.
Introduced in last July’s Public Law Outline, the 26-week limit is not a new idea; but came into full and legal effect on 22 April.
Of course some cases will be more complex than others. In some cases, 26 weeks will never be a realistic time scale of proceedings within which the court can adequately discharge its duties. In these cases, it is the court’s discretion to extend the timetable where “necessary to enable the court to resolve the proceedings justly.”
The concern over the 26-week limit is that the reduced time scale of proceedings may open the door to injustice. It gives less time to fight the case in court. It reduces the available opportunities for parents to demonstrate their ability to parent and care for their own children. It could result in potential family or friends carers not being considered as an option by the court due to the lack of sufficient time to consider their application before the proceedings must be closed.
The concern is that the emphasis will be on speed over actual welfare of the children involved.