Care orders relating to two children aged 2 ½ and 18 months have been postponed after Bristol Family Court found that South Gloucestershire Council had not filed adequate evidence in time to meet court deadlines.
In the case Re TM & TJ (Children Care Orders), the two children had initially been placed in foster care in September 2014, under Section 20 of The Children Act 1989. The local authority had applied for the care orders on the basis that the children’s teenage mother led a “chaotic and disordered lifestyle in which her children were neglected and under-stimulated.” The parents had separated and their relationship was deemed to be volatile.
The law requires that care cases be concluded within 26 weeks, unless the court decides an extension is needed for the court to reach a just resolution. In this case, Bristol Magistrates issued an order on January 30 this year stating that a final hearing should take place on 7, 8 and 10 July, within the 26 week timeframe.
On 12 March, Bristol Magistrates ordered an Issues Resolution Hearing (IRH). One of the main intentions of an IRH is to identify the issues between the parties and see if they can be resolved without the need for a final hearing. The Local Authority was ordered to submit their final evidence for the IRH by June 15, with the parents and guardian of the children instructed to file their statements the following week.
However, despite having three months to collate evidence, the local authority did not file their final evidence by the date instructed. When the case was referred to His Honour Judge Wildblood QC at the Bristol Family Court, the local authority admitted that its assessments were inadequate and could not be relied upon.
The proposed care plan for the children was that they should live with their father who was living in the east of England. However no input from the local authority in that area had been sought and it were only informed of the recommendation a week before the court hearing, and so did not feel it were equipped to participate in the hearing.
The judge also noted that there had been no adequate parenting assessment carried out on the mother, despite the children having been in foster care for six months. The assessments had been the responsibility of an agency social worker who had left her post without fulfilling her task, and a new social worker had been assigned who was not up to speed with the case.
As a result of these issues the judge deemed that the case could not be heard in July as originally scheduled. He said that
“It would be impossible to do justice to these children and to make a decision that reflected their paramount welfare in a hearing then.”
He adjourned the case, with a new IRH set for September, which he noted would be 12 months after the children were first placed into foster care.
In his conclusions, the judge noted a significant increase in cases not meeting the 26 week statutory deadline for completion, saying that 49 cases out of 181 public law cases were “off track”, which equates to approximately 27 per cent. He stated
“There are far too many cases like this one where the issues are straightforward and where delay is manifestly harmful to the children concerned. The only reason why this case has been delayed is inefficiency.”
South Gloucestershire Council has apologised for the delays, and say that they came about due to “significant staffing issues within South Gloucestershire Council’s social care service.” They added that they were keen to learn from this case and will fund an independent social worker to report on the issues, as well as conducting an internal review.
To read Re TM & TJ (Children Care Orders) click here
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