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Care Proceedings are lasting longer in Court due to COVID-19
- AuthorChelsea Harris
The duration of Care Proceedings in Court has increased since the beginning of the lockdown and has reached the longest length since the 26-week target rule was introduced in 2014, despite the number of cases being issued falling in 2019.
Care Proceedings are now taking up to 10 weeks longer than the target 26-weeks following the coronavirus lockdown. Ministry of Justice Figures showed that, from April to June 2020, the average length of proceedings was 36 weeks. The percentage of cases that were completed within the target 26-weeks was only 34% compared to the same period in 2019 which saw 41% of cases being completed within the 26-week target. This reflects the impact that Coronavirus has had on completing proceedings. During this time cases have been held virtually, where possible, and still continue to be held virtually. This is more difficult for complex cases and it is often not been possible to hold a virtual hearing which in turn causes more delay, due to needing to attend in person at Court and finding a suitable time and location for this to take place.
According to the Ministry of Justice, the duration of Care Proceedings has been rising consistently since 2016 when it stood at 27 weeks, this was two years after the Children and Families Act 2014 introduced the target duration of 26 weeks.
In response to the figures found, Cafcass said, “most hearings involving significant decisions relating to children are required to take place in-person”. Sarah Tough, Chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services families, communities and young people policy committee said “in-person hearings were largely unavailable for the period covered (April – June 2020) and remote hearings often take longer and are not well suited to complex, contested hearings.”
Research into the impact of virtual hearings, published by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (NFJO) in April 2020 showed that virtual hearings could work efficiently but there could also be significant challenges relating to some contested cases and cases involving groups with vulnerabilities. NFJO Director, Lisa Harker, said that virtual hearings were heavily reliant on everyone involved having access to adequate technology. However, since April 2020 things have progressed as many Courts have now introduced new video conferencing systems and many Courts are also operating hybrid hearings.
There has been further discussions regarding whether the 26-week target is achievable. It has been said that the 26-week target is still meaningful and there is a provision in the legislation allowing extensions of a case by up to a further eight weeks at a time, ‘if the Court considers that the extension is necessary to enable the Court to resolve the Proceedings justly.’
For the collection of Family Court Statistics please click here: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/family-court-statistics-quarterly
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