Rise in time taken to place children into care in Northumberland

The time taken to complete cases to place children into care in Northumberland has risen again, but improvement efforts are starting to have an impact.

Friday, 6th September 2019, 5:45 pm
Updated Friday, 6th September 2019, 5:45 pm

A report to Thursday’s (September 5) meeting of the county council’s family and children’s services committee stated that the average time for legal care proceedings to reach a conclusion, as of June this year, is 39 weeks.

A similar update this time last year revealed that the figure was 33 weeks, an improvement on the 37.5-week average reported in 2017, although it is a reduction from when the number was in the high 40s.

However, much of the 2019 increase was put down to legacy cases and following changes at the local authority last year, the average for new cases is 26.8 weeks – significantly better than the overall average.

The national target is 26 weeks, but all North East councils have struggled to meet this, with only four areas nationally managing within this timescale.

The report notes that ‘there is variation among the local authorities in the region , but as the six northern authorities all feed into the Newcastle family court, they are all subject to similar challenges with court timetabling and resulting delay’.

In April last year, Northumberland established a legal gateway panel, ‘which has proven to be effective in overseeing the decision to issue care proceedings, supporting social workers to make necessary preparations for proceedings and screening out cases where further work could be completed to avoid a legal intervention or those that are not court-ready’.

Since the panel has been operational, the average number of weeks for cases that have been issued and concluded is 26.8 weeks and the lengthy proceedings ‘tend to be related to cases that were issued prior to the establishment of the panel, so the expectation is that as these work through the system, the overall average will reduce’.

Further changes were made in the wake of a review in July last year by Judge Hudson, chairman of the North East Family Court, of all the cases in the region that had exceeded 26 weeks.

The report to councillors concludes: “Northumberland has made progress in the quality of evidence being presented to court over the last year and reputation and relationship with the court are improved.

“The legal gateway panel is beginning to have an impact on the duration of care proceedings, which should be reflected in reducing timescales over the next 12 months.”