Family courts told not to “press the pause button”

Family court judges should proceed with caution when postponing final decisions in a case, the Court of Appeal has declared.

The case of S-L (Children: Adjournment) concerned a local authority’s appeal against a ruling made earlier this year. The recorder in that case had adjourned the council’s application for care and placement orders for two young children. The parents of the three year-old girl and her seven month old baby brother were suspected of neglect and had poor parenting skills.

‘Care and placement’ orders are twin rulings made by family courts to take children into care and then place them for adoption. Instead the Judge ordered a further period of assessment.

At the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Peter Jackson noted that family law emphasises the avoidance of unnecessary delay.

In cases involving children, there can sometimes be good reasons for adjourning a final decision in order to obtain necessary information. The overriding obligation is to deal with the case justly, but there is a trade-off between the need for information and the presumptive prejudice to the child of delay, enshrined in section 1(2) Children Act 1989.

Section 1(2) of the Children Act states:

In any proceedings in which any question with respect to the upbringing of a child arises, the court shall have regard to the general principle that any delay in determining the question is likely to prejudice the welfare of the child.

Lord Justice Jackson continued:

Judges in the family court are …acutely aware that for babies and young children the passage of weeks and months is a matter of real significance.

He referred to the 26-week maximum timeframe normally required in adoption cases, unless an extension is judged to be genuinely necessary. The earlier judge had failed to give reasons for extending the case beyond 26 weeks and so the adjournment had been wrong, he declared.

The parents had been intensively assessed in relation to one child and there was no gap in the evidence to justify a further assessment in relation to two children for whom delay in decision-making was a pressing negative feature.

Referring to a claim by the father’s counsel that the recorder had done no more than “press the pause button”, the Lord Jackson said:

Adjourning a decision should never be seen as ‘pressing the pause button’: it is a positive purposeful choice that requires a proper weighing-up of the advantages and disadvantages and a lively awareness that the passage of time has consequences.”

He ordered the case to be sent back to the lower courts for an expedited final decision.

Read S-L (Children : Adjournment) here.

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