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Government to impose six-month limit on care proceedings

6 February 2012

The government has decided to bring in a new law imposing a six-month limit on care proceedings in its response to the Norgrove report.

Norgrove (pictured) said at the launch of his final report last year that care cases took “far too long” and statutory limits were needed (see solicitorjournal.com, 3 November 2011).

Ministers said this morning in their response to the former Whitehall mandarin: “Our aim is to legislate to provide for a time limit of six months for the completion of care and supervision cases as soon as this is reasonably practicable.

“Cases which can be should be progressed much more quickly. Judges would retain the flexibility to extend a case beyond the time limit in exceptional cases, where this is necessary in the interests of the child and the reasons have been clearly set out.”

Ministers also said they would work with the president of the Family Division “to ensure a new, more robust role for judges” and legislate to give them more discretion over interim care orders.

To “reduce the excessive use of expert reports” in care cases, the government promised legislation “to make clear that in family proceedings the courts should only give permission for expert evidence to be commissioned where it is necessary to resolve the case and the information is not already available through other sources”.

Nicholas Cusworth QC, chairman of the Family Law Bar Association, said there was a perception that the courts allowed parents who risked losing their children too much of an opportunity to argue their case.

“There must also be an awareness, however, that a six-month guillotine risks creating exactly the type of parental backlash that the government says it is trying to avoid through other proposals,” Cusworth said.

“The firmer the requirement to finish in six months, the more likely it is that decisions will be taken without the best available evidence, in an area where any mistake is potentially disastrous for the child concerned.”

Des Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society, agreed that reducing delays in care proceedings was crucial, but said it should not come at the expense of the children caught up in the system.

“To effectively have the time which cases take now will require additional resources, but court facilities are being closed and the number of solicitors available to help families is likely to reduce in the wake of the legal aid cuts.”

Steve Matthews, chairman of the Magistrates’ Association’s family courts committee, said courts must retain “sufficient flexibility” where the interests of children required an extension.

In a departure from the Norgrove report widely trailed in the national media, ministers promised to enshrine the importance of both parents, fathers as well as mothers, in law.

This morning’s response stated: “The government believes that there should be a legislative statement of the importance of children having an ongoing relationship with both their parents after family separation, where that is safe, and in the child’s best interests.”

Officials said a working group of ministers has been set up to “develop proposals for legislative change”, which would be consulted on later this year.

They added that the government was “mindful of the lessons which must be learnt from the Australian experience of legislating in this area”, which were highlighted in the Norgrove report. Norgrove recommended no change to the status quo.

“We will therefore consider very carefully how legislation can be framed to avoid the pitfalls of the Australian experience, in particular that a meaningful relationship is not about equal division of time, but the quality of parenting received by the child.”

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Divorce Children