Partnership by Law?
Project: Partnership by Law? The Pre-Proceedings Process for Families on the Edge of Care Proceedings
Dates: April 2010 – June 2012
Research Team: Jonathan Dickens and Julie Young, University of East Anglia; Prof Judith Masson and Kay Bader, School of Law, Bristol University.
The pre-proceedings process was introduced in statutory guidance in 2008. When a local authority is considering starting care proceedings on a child, it is required to write a ‘letter before proceedings' to the parents (unless the case is urgent) explaining the concerns and inviting them to a ‘pre-proceedings meeting' to discuss how proceedings could be avoided. Legal aid is available so that a lawyer can advise and support the parents at this meeting. The aims were to divert cases from court if possible, to ensure care applications were better prepared, and to reduce the time courts took to decide the cases.
The study was conducted in six local authorities in England and Wales, and examined the use and impact of the process by analysing local authority case and court proceedings files (207); interviews with social work managers (16), social workers (19), local authority lawyers (16) and lawyers who represent parents (19); observations of pre-proceedings meetings (36), interviews with parents and other relatives who attended them (25); and a focus group with judges. Observed cases were followed up 6-18 months after the meeting.
Most of the families that were involved in pre-proceedings meetings were well known to the local authority, and over 80% of the children were on child protection plans. The primary use of the process was to reinforce the child protection plan; it was a ‘step up', to indicate the seriousness of concerns and encourage the parents to co-operate. Given the long histories it was notable that diversion was achieved in about a quarter of the cases, through alternative care arrangements or improved parenting.
Local authority interviewees valued the process as an ethical way of practice, with potential to avoid proceedings. Positive views were tempered with concern about delays for children and great disillusionment about the failure of courts to take note of pre-proceedings work. The process made no significant difference to what happened in court, and cases with or without it lasted just as long. These findings are important given the current drive to reduce the duration of care proceedings to 26 weeks. This creates new pressures on local authorities to bring well prepared cases, and on the courts to take more account of pre-proceedings work.