Publication of the President’s Public Law Working Group report

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

On 1st March 2021 the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, welcomed and endorsed the publication of the President’s Public Law Working Group (PLWG) report.

There are four further Best Practice Guidances

The application and case management

Support for work with families prior to proceedings

Section 20/section 76 accommodation

Special guardianship orders

This group was formed prior to the COVID pandemic to investigate the steep rise in public law cases and make recommendations to improve the system.

The President noted that the recommendations had come about ‘organically’ and by agreement which suggests that they are ‘both sound and necessary’. It was his ‘earnest hope and confident expectation’ that the recommendations would therefore but welcomed and put into effect by social workers, lawyers, judges, magistrates and court staff across England and Wales.

It is interesting to see the juxtaposition of ‘an earnest hope’ and a ‘confident expectation’. One does not sit easily with the other. It is also interesting to recall that the Norgrove Family Justice Review was only 10 years ago.

We found general agreement with our diagnosis: a system that is not a system, characterised by mutual distrust and a lack of leadership, by incoherence and without solid evidence based knowledge about how it really works. The consequence for children is unconscionable delay that has continued to increase since we began our work. The average care case in county courts now takes over 60 weeks and many take much longer – an age in the life of a child.

This lead to the Children And Families Act 2014 which endeavoured to speed up care cases by permitting only 26 weeks from application to final order and requiring that experts are appointed only when ‘necessary’.

So what has gone wrong? Why only 10 years later do we have another comprehensive review? The problem appears to be twofold; the steep rise in the number of public law cases and the worrying evidence of significant regional variations that led some researchers to conclude, for example when looking at variations in numbers of Special Guardian orders, that “court and local authority cultures are more important than the perceived riskiness of the placement”.

The former President said this about excessive workloads in 2018:

My view now is that the system, that is each of the professional human beings that I have just listed, is attempting to work at, and often well beyond, capacity. As one designated family judge said to me recently, the workload and the pressure are “remorseless and relentless”. I am genuinely concerned about the long-term wellbeing of all those who are over-working at this high and unsustainable level. Some have predicted that, if the current situation continues, the family justice system will “collapse” or “fall over”, but, as I have said before, I do not think systems collapse in these circumstances. Systems simply grind on; it is people who may “collapse” or “fall over”. Indeed, that is already happening and I could give you real examples of this happening now. 

47 core recommendations

There are 47 ‘core recommendations’. My vague plans to spend an hour or so going through the report thus withered and died on the vine. This weekend alone I will have to:

  • draft a case summary and order
  • Revise a schedule of allegations
  • Check I have everything I need in the electronic bundle for another hearing
  • deal with the emails that I received during an afternoon remote hearing

This is a light weekend. I hope to get all that done in 8 hours. If I was facing a contested hearing next week then I would be looking at closer to 12 hours work. So I gave myself 2 hours to write this. Excuse me if I am bad tempered. I do not know when I will find the time to read through this report with the care it deserves. I comment now on some key issues that jumped out at me. I do not do this in a spirit of cynicism or lack of respect for the hard work that has gone into this endeavour. However I can see immediately three key problems here:

  • Recommendations which sound good – but what do they mean?
  • Recommendations which sound good but which depend on a workforce with time to think about them.
  • Recommendations we have heard before

And WHY the use of roman numerals? Seriously why? this is utterly exasperating in a report that recommends less reliance on jargon and clear explanations for parents.

Recommendations that sound good – but what do they mean?

Para 124 of the Norgove review stated: Children and young people should be given the opportunity to have their voices heard in cases that are about them, where they wish it. Para 23(ii) of the PLWG states “ensure the voice of the child is at the centre of collective thinking”. What does this mean? In cases involving pre verbal babies and toddlers, what am I expected to do to make their ‘voice’ heard, what is ‘collective thinking’ and when is this to take place?

xxxix. the promotion nationally of consistency of outcomes – the report recognises that this is going to need some more work. But what does it mean? If every case is fact specific, as the report states, how is this ‘consistency’ to be measured and tracked? Given that the reasons for stark regional variations are not fully understood how will this be promoted?

Recommendations that sound good but depend on a workforce with time to think about them

xxix. renewed emphasis on effective IRHs

xxxvi. a shift in focus on bundles: identifying what is necessary

xxxvii. fact-finding hearings: only focus on what is necessary to be determined

xxxviii. additional hearings: only where necessary.

That word ‘necessary’ is a weasel word. Just like ‘abuse’ or ‘best interests’ it can expand and contract depending on the desires of who is using it at any given time. But one thing I know for sure – in order to make a good argument about what is or is not ‘necessary’ you must have time to know your case, know the issues, know the options. Do we have that time? I do not think we do. And when you do not have time to spend at least a couple of hours carefully analysing your case before each hearing, it is difficult to be ruthless about what the core issues are. The temptation is to chuck everything in and sort it out later, rather than risk not grappling with an issue which may turn out to be pivotal down the line.

Recommendations we have heard before

xxxii. experts: a reduction in their use and a renewed focus on “necessity”

xxxiii. experts: a shift in culture and a renewed focus on social workers and CGs;

xxviii. renewed emphasis on judicial continuity

When I was starting out I remember writing an article in 2001 which commented on the over-reliance on experts. I mused that this was probably due to the desire of many of us, who lack the time to be confident that we are making sound decisions, to ‘outsource’ that decision making process to someone else – who can then be blamed if it all goes horribly wrong. But its also due to the fact that many parents in care proceedings will suffer horribly from their own child hood trauma, leaving them with unresolved mental health issues that utterly blight their parenting prospects and will continue to blight them, absent some expensive and lengthy therapy which of course will never be provided because no one will pay for it. We will be circling this wagon indefinitely and will confidently assert that in the next round of reviews, reports and best practice guidance we will still be referring to this.

Judicial continuity – I am confident that many of the problems which drag the system down could be made much better if only we had judicial continuity. If we were able to bring urgent applications to a Judge who knew the case. If the Judge could work collaboratively with the advocates to move things along, rather than hearing things afresh at each hearing. Apparently there may be some more money being found for more judges but this has been on the wish list constantly since I started out, 20 years ago.

There is so much more that needs to be said

But I am frankly over whelmed by the sheer weight of all these recommendations and best practice guidances. It is ironic to think that the time I will need to spend reading about what my best practice must be, is time that will not be spent actually practicing better. I hope that this blog post will operate as a spur to me at least, to go back and read with some more thought and care.

But I find myself reluctant and resistant for this reason. Any system that requires frequent reviews and recommendations, when the ‘core’ recommendations number 47 and are accompanied by 4 separate ‘best practice’ guidances, is a system which is perhaps distracting itself from the key problems.

What many of the children I deal with need is not a pious exhortation that ‘their voice and lived experience’ will be central to our ‘collective thinking’. Rather they need urgent mental health intervention and safe accommodation and they need it NOW. Or they are babies about to be removed from their mothers in hospital and there are no mother and baby placements available, none at all. Or they are the children of parents with learning disabilities and there is no support available to support the parents to care for them.

I have made these points many times before in many different environments. Fundamentally I think the problem is this. We don’t live in a society that cares about children, other than as future economic actors. The rise in care proceedings shows this. Because if we really cared about children, wouldn’t we do more to prevent their parents sliding out of view?

EDIT March 9th 2021

I attended today the remote webinar introducing the key themes, recommendations and plans for implementation of the report and I am happy to say I feel more energised and positive now after the key note speeches of the President and Mr Justice Keehan. Please see these comments on the speeches.