Following a statement I made to the House on 26 July 2007, Official Report, column 103WS, and in agreement with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) and the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services in the Welsh Assembly Government (Gwenda Thomas), I am delighted to inform the House that two key reforms to the child care proceedings system have today come into force in England and Wales.
The Public Law Outline has been introduced to replace the existing Protocol for Judicial Case Management in Public Law Children Act Cases. This is underpinned by revised statutory guidance to local authorities in England and Wales issued under section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 to support them in preparing care applications to the court.
Together these key reforms, which arose from the recommendations of the “Review of the Child Care Proceedings System in England and Wales in May 2006”, seek to ensure that vulnerable children involved in care cases have safety and stability in their lives and that decisions as to their future are made fairly and as speedily as possible. It is vital that all agencies work together collaboratively to establish safe, permanent and timely child focused solutions and reduce the stress caused by unnecessary delay in care proceedings.
In order to further inter-agency unity, a partnership of Government Departments and agencies commissioned Children Law UK to deliver training courses to support the introduction of the Public Law Outline and revised statutory guidance. Some 25 interdisciplinary seminars took place in England and Wales between January and March 2008, attended by nearly 2,000 people. Delegates included social workers, local authority legal advisers, legal practitioners, family court staff, and Cafcass and Cafcass Cymru staff. The seminars were delivered by family legal and social work experts who provided the attendees with the skills and knowledge necessary to cascade the training to their peers.
The revised statutory guidance places greater emphasis on the work undertaken by local authorities before care proceedings can commence. In particular, they are required to notify parents of their intention to make an application to the court and to set out the basis of their concerns and an outline of their future plans for the child. On receipt of this, parents have immediate access to non-means tested legal help from a solicitor, funded by the Legal Services Commission, with the aim of avoiding proceedings or narrowing the issues to be determined by the court.
Where cases do proceed to court, the Public Law Outline introduces a more streamlined court process (reducing the current six stages to four). It promotes better quality applications through following the revised local authority guidance; requires timetables for the court process to be set which are focused on the needs of the children involved; and, introduces enhanced case management procedures which include earlier identification of the key issues leading to better targeted and effective use of experts evidence in those cases where it is required.
The final versions of the Public Law Outline and local authority guidance have been prepared with input from a wide range of stakeholders. A full public consultation on the revised statutory guidance was undertaken during 2007, while the Public Law Outline was tested in 10 care centres and their linked family proceedings courts selected by Sir Mark Potter, president of the family division, in consultation with relevant designated family judges. The experiences of the 10 initiative areas have played a crucial role in helping to inform both final versions of these key reforms, and the nationwide implementation plans.
Copies of the Public Law Outline and the revised statutory guidance have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.