Impact of the Family Justice Reforms on Front-line Practice Phase One: The Public Law Outline
The Children and Families Act came into force in April 2014, introducing wide-ranging reforms to the Family Justice System. At the heart of public family law reform was a revised Public Law Outline (PLO), which introduced a 26-week timeframe for completing care proceedings, with the intention of supporting timely decision-making for children and young people. The revised PLO was piloted in phases between July and October 2013.
The measures in the Act supported a shift in local authority practice towards a more thorough pre-proceedings phase, with an increased emphasis on documentation and assessments being completed earlier. The Act also introduced an expectation that evidence produced for the court would be focused, succinct and analytical and that the use of expert evidence in proceedings would be restricted to that which is necessary to resolve the proceedings justly (Department for Education, 2014; Ipsos Mori, 2014).
The Tri-borough authorities in London (Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster), worked in conjunction with the courts and Cafcass (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) to establish a pilot programme ahead of the legislation to try to reduce the duration of care cases to 26 weeks. An independent evaluation of the pilot found that the median duration of care proceedings was 27 weeks for the first nine months of the pilot, as compared to a median duration of 49 weeks in the previous year. The evaluation suggested that the following factors were important in driving change to meet the 26-week time limit:
• Timely and more selective use of social work assessments
• The role of case manager providing additional capacity to: maintain an overview of cases being considered and brought to court; advise social workers on the quality of their assessments and statements; track cases and analyse causes of delay; support social workers during proceedings; liaise with the local courts
• Social Worker confidence in their own professional judgements and decisions
• Early appointment of guardians at the outset of cases
• Judicial continuity and robust court management by judges and magistrates
• Commitments and leadership in all agencies (local authorities, Cafcass and the courts)