Project dates: January 2015-October 2016


Research team: Professor Jonathan Dickens, Dr Chris Beckett, Sue Bailey.


Funders: The Department for Education and Cafcass




Long-standing concerns about unnecessary delay in care proceedings led to major reforms in 2013-14, intended to reduce the normal duration to 26 weeks. Prior to those national changes, the Tri-borough authorities in London (Hammersmith & Fulham, Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea) launched a pilot project to try to hit the 26 week target. It ran from April 2012 to March 2013. The project was evaluated by a team from the CRCF. They have now been commissioned to undertake a follow-up study to track and evaluate the longer-term outcomes for the children.




The original evaluation compared the timings and outcomes of care proceedings in the pre-pilot year (2011-12) and the pilot year (2012-13). This gives a combined database of 180 cases (259 children), and a unique opportunity to track and compare longer-term progress and outcomes for the children.  


The follow-up study aims to assess whether or not delay has shifted to the post-court stage, and whether the new regime leads to different long-term outcomes. For example, it will be possible to compare the two cohorts in terms of planned and actual outcomes, time to reach the planned placement, whether placements endure (at home, kinship care or foster care), and the children’s well-being.




The original evaluation combined quantitative and qualitative elements. We analysed data such as the ages of the children, the start and end dates of the proceedings, orders made, plans and placements. We interviewed a range of professionals, including social workers, lawyers, children’s guardians, and judges. We also held a focus group with young people in care.




The Tri-borough pilot succeeded in its key aim of reducing the length of care proceedings. The median duration of care proceedings was 27 weeks compared to 49 weeks the year before, a reduction of 45%.


The fact that the median length of proceedings fell to around 26 weeks means that half the cases were still taking longer than that. The pilot showed that it is important to retain some flexibility, and this can coexist with meaningful efforts to bear down on unnecessary delay.


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 numbers ending in special guardianship orders had risen, but these differences were not statistically significant. The proportion of cases ending in a care order and placement order was almost exactly the same. This suggests that the drive to speed up proceedings does not result in significantly different court outcomes.




The original evaluation was widely quoted and circulated, because it shows that the 26 week target can be achieved without compromising justice and thoroughness, as long as there is proper regard for flexibility. The researchers have continued to disseminate the key messages through publications and presentations at professional and academic conferences.


The new study will give important information about what happens after proceedings, the outcomes of the care plans agreed by the court, and the factors that may affect that.




Two papers have been published in social work journals:


Beckett, C. and Dickens, J. (2014) ‘Delay and anxiety in care proceedings: grounds for hope?’, Journal of Social Work Practice, 28(3): 371-382.


Dickens, J. Beckett, C. and Bailey, S. (2014) ‘Justice, speed and thoroughness in child protection court proceedings: messages from England’, Children and Youth Services Review, 46: 103-111.