Helpful tips on how to achieve the PLO statutory timeframe.
The Public Law Outline (PLO)
The PLO will be very familiar to those practitioners involved in Public Law Children Act Care Proceedings. For those unfamiliar or new to this area, the PLO provides a template for case management of care proceedings to reduce delay and, once proceedings are commenced, to conclude them within the statutory 26-week time limit.
Delay can be detrimental to a child’s welfare
Despite the imposition of a statutory time limit introduced with the Revised PLO in 2014, the steep rise in care proceedings since 2016 has resulted in a backlog of cases, which has impacted the steady increase in the national average length of a care case as follows:
2016 27 weeks
2021 44 weeks
2022/23 44-46 weeks
Such delay is likely to be prejudicial to the child’s welfare, which contradicts the fundamental principles of the Children Act 1989. To assist in this fundamental issue, the Public Law Working Group (PLWG) was set up to address the operation of the child protection and family justice system.
The Public Law Working Group (PLWG)
The PLWG, in its Best Practice Guidance report Support for and Work with Families Prior to Court Proceedings, dated March 2021, considered how children can:
- safely be diverted from becoming the subject of public law proceedings; and
- once children are subject to court proceedings, best to have a fully informed decision about their future lives fairly and swiftly made.
The PLWG’s Best Practice Guidance states:
- care proceedings are an option of last resort;
- the PLO pre-proceedings process represents a genuine opportunity to work closely with families by offering help and support to address their recognised needs in a bid to negate the need to issue care proceedings;
- working in partnership with families requires a collaborative approach to identifying issues together and co-producing a plan to support change;
- the child’s safety must always be maintained, and the voice of the child must be heard;
- safely managing risk while building on family strengths and energising wider family support is critical;
- the decision to initiate court proceedings should be taken by a senior manager of the local authority;
- it is crucial that the parents clearly understand the PLO pre-proceedings process and what is expected of them and
- in respect of newborns, if the local authority comes to an early view that proceedings will be issued on birth, then draft documents should be ready to send to the local authority lawyers before the child’s birth. 7
The Best Practice Guidance is essential for all practitioners. It can also be an additional tool to assist practitioners in supporting families to understand what they should be able to expect from local authority children’s services departments, both within pre-proceedings work and should court proceedings be commenced.
Further to the publication of the PLWG’s Best Practice Guidance, many local authorities have issued their local guidance or Public Law Outline toolkits in line with the PLWG’s recommendations. These are intended to guide social workers to internal processes and timescales, with helpful letter templates and standardised documents, and to develop consistent practice and timescales throughout the various teams within the local authority children’s services
The PLO relaunch- why was the relaunch necessary?
In addition to these efforts and to support continued progress, the President of the Family Division announced in November 2022 that there was a need to reconnect with the PLO and relaunched the PLO, effective from January 2023.
The President’s view can be found here. https://www.judiciary.uk/guidance-and-resources/a-view-from-the-presidents-chambers-november-2022/
In this view, the President expressed a need for a “radical reset”, that is, a change of culture to reduce delay and for proceedings to only be issued after all pre-proceedings steps have been explored.
In terms of timetabling, the key messages in the relaunch were a key reminder of keeping to the PLO timescales and were as follows:
- The PLO Pre-proceedings process, with the engagement of parents and a thorough assessment exercise in line with the PLWG recommendations, is essential;
- Only those very rare cases that are truly urgent should be the subject of an ‘urgent’ first hearing.
- The first hearing should be the Case Management Hearing [‘CMH’], held ‘not before Day 12 and no later than Day 18’; with an advocates meeting held no later than 2 days before the CMH
- Parents are to be expressly required to identify any family members for assessment at, or within a week of, the CMH;
- No other hearing should normally be listed after the CMH until the Issues Resolution Hearing [‘IRH’];
- Experts should only be instructed where to do so is ‘necessary to assist the court to resolve the proceedings justly’, rather than where it is merely desirable or helpful
5 months on, the President, in his view published in July 2023 https://www.judiciary.uk/guidance-and-resources/a-view-from-the-presidents-chambers-july-2023/
stated as follows:
- the relaunch has landed well.
- to reduce delay and reduce the number of cases, proceedings should only be commenced as a last resort and (if able to do so)
- once all necessary assessments have been concluded.
This will then enable the court to consider whether further assessments are necessary in order to assist in making decisions on the key issues:
- Whether the threshold criteria is met as set out in S.31 Children Act 1989
s.31(2) A court may only make a care order or supervision order if it is satisfied—
(a)that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; and
(b)that the harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to—
(i)the care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him; or
(ii)the child’s being beyond parental control.
2. The permanency plans set out in the local authority’s care plan
3. Contact/Family time
4. Welfare assessment- that the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration (as set out in s1(1) Children Act 1989) and therefore what order if any would be in the child’s welfare.
Helpful tips on how to achieve the statutory 26 week statutory timeframe
- Undertaking robust pre-proceedings assessments can enable a strong challenge against repeated or duplicate assessments proposed once care proceedings have commenced.
Any requests for further or updating assessments should clearly set out
(i) Why are they required? is the assessment necessary and proportionate?
(ii) what is the focus of the assessment,
(iii) what is the timeline and
(iv) if it is a parenting assessment-what it expected of the parents or carers.
2. In the pre proceedings process, parents and carers should be encouraged to identify family members and any potential alternate carers for the purposes of convening an early Family Group Conference or Family Networking to identify support and possible kinship assessments.
Once proceedings are commenced, parents and carers will be given a clear date by the court by which they must identify any potential alternate carers and be informed that any alternate carers put forward after this date may unlikely to be assessed because of the resulting harmful delay in planning for the child’s future care.
3. Make every hearing effective with robust case management.
You can read more about the President’s previous view, on making every hearing count in our previous blog which can be found here https://www.kingsleyknight.co.uk/family-court-backlogs-are-like-dough-proofing-on-a-bakers-shelf/-
4. If a final hearing is required then:
(i) the contested issues must be clearly identified,
(ii) the witnesses required to determine the issues must be identified,
(iii) a fully completed witness template must be agreed prior to the conclusion of the IRH and,
(iv) the time estimate for the FH must be proportionate to the issues in dispute and include time for judgment preparation.
It is always encouraging to end with some positive news. It is so promising to see that this change in culture is already showing positive results
The President comments on his most recent view in July 2023 that public law cases have reduced by 7.4% nationally when comparing quarter one of 2022 to quarter one of 2023.
The family court statistics quarter, January – March 2023, records that individual children involved in new public law applications are down 10% on the same quarter in the previous year, while the number of applications made also decreased by 10%. Further details can be found here
CAFCASS report that there has been a decrease of S31 care applications by 15.0% compared to the same period in 2022.
Even more positive news, CAFCASS report for the period April to August 2023 there has been a decrease of S31 care applications, which is 7.7% fewer applications compared to the same period in 2022
How can we help
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Disclaimer: The contents of this guide are for information and are not intended to be relied upon as legal advice