Project: Evaluation of the Tri-borough Care Proceedings Pilot

Funder: The London Tri-borough authorities

Dates:  April 2012 - March 2013

Research Team: Dr Jonathan Dickens, Dr Chris Beckett, Sue Bailey, Dr Sara Connolly & Penny Sorensen

For many years policy-makers and practitioners have wrestled with the problem of lengthy court proceedings involving children. The Family Justice Review of 2010-11 proposed that there should be a statutory time limit of 26 weeks, and the Tri-borough Care Proceedings Pilot, which ran from April 2012 to March 2013, was an initiative to conclude care cases within this timescale.

It was developed by the three London boroughs of Hammersmith & Fulham, Westminster, and Kensington & Chelsea, along with the court service and Cafcass. It introduced a range of practice changes in the local authorities and the courts, and a framework of monitoring mechanisms. The aim was to provide a model that could be rolled out to other areas.

The Tri-borough authorities invited tenders for an independent evaluation, and a team from the CRCF, with consultants Dr Sara Connolly of the Norwich Business School and Professor Judith Masson of Bristol University, were successful. We used a mixture of statistical analysis, and interviews and focus groups with social workers, lawyers, judges, children's guardians, and young people.

We published our initial evaluation in September 2013, which found that the median duration of care proceedings had fallen to 27 weeks (based on cases starting between April and December 2012). This was a significant change from the year before (when it was 49 weeks), thanks to the concerted efforts of all the agencies and professionals involved. The interviews with the different professionals involved, including lawyers who represented parents, showed a shared view that this had been achieved without compromising thoroughness or fairness to parents.

In spring 2014 we conducted a follow-up evaluation, now that all the court cases had ended. This enabled us to link duration with the final orders. The median duration was still 27 weeks, but the important finding was that the pattern of final orders was broadly the same for cases in the pilot year as in the year before. The proportion of cases ending in care orders only had fallen, and the proportion ending in special guardianship orders had risen, but these differences were not statistically significant (that is to say, they could be the result of normal year-to-year variation). The proportion of cases ending in a care order + placement order was almost exactly the same. This confirms the optimistic findings of the original report, about the benefits of speeding up care proceedings without impairing justice.

Nationally the duration of care proceedings has decreased considerably over the last year, falling to a median of 27 weeks in the quarter October- December 2013. It should be noted that the Tri-borough authorities achieved this in their pilot year, ahead of the national changes (the new ‘Public Law Outline', introduced in summer 2013). Their initiative was invaluable in showing that it could be done, and some of the practices that they introduced have been adopted in other areas. Our original evaluation report was widely quoted (including by the President of the Family Division and the Minister for Children and Families) and helped to spread the messages from the pilot.

The updated report is available here.