The Children Order Advisory Committee
Eleventh Report

Contents

Foreword

It is my pleasant duty as Chair of the Children Order Advisory Committee (COAC) to introduce this, the eleventh report on its work which covers the period 1 April 2009 to 31 March 2010. This has been a landmark year for the Committee in that during it, several very important practical initiatives have been launched or come to fruition that have the potential to improve the quality and to expedite the progress of those cases which have to enter and progress through the court system as well as, very importantly, to divert cases from that system by encouraging early and determined intervention with families in order to get identified problems solved and the family back on the track of at least “good enough” parenting without the need to involve the court system.

The details of these developments are described in the pages that follow and I do not intend to try to précis them in the space allocated to my remarks. However, it is I think important that I direct the reader’s attention in outline to the most significant of them and commend a study of the detailed descriptions that later appear.

The first is the on–line publication of the rather overdue issue of a second edition of the COAC Best Practice Guidance. When the first edition was produced some years ago my distinguished predecessor, Mr Justice Gillen, expressed the intention that a revised edition be produced after two years. Unfortunately that objective was not realised, partly because of the inflexibility of a hard copy format in achieving any form of continuous revision. Fortunately SLS Legal Publications (NI) came to our rescue with a generous offer to publish the revised edition on-line and entirely free of charge both to COAC and to users who can obtain access through the SLS website (details within). We are indebted to SLS and particularly to its Director, Miriam Dudley, for this significant gesture which provides the most up to date version of this essential guidance to a wide audience of professionals and lay people at no cost whatever to them. Thanks are also due to Master Wells and her multi-disciplinary team on the Best Practice Review Panel for undertaking the onerous task of continuous revision with those amendments suggested by and to the panel and then approved by COAC being incorporated every six months so as to keep the Guidance dependably up-to-date.

Secondly, I select for mention the efforts being made to improve the timely instruction of suitable experts where these are required to inform court proceedings. There has long been a problem in identifying and securing the services of such experts and the delays in instructing them and setting them to work are compounded by the rules of the Legal Services Commission in relation to securing its permission to instruct them, once identified. One major contributory problem has been the lack of any reliable directory or register of those experts willing to receive instructions in children’s cases with the result that some experts are heavily overburdened causing long lead-in times for the provision of reports and consequent delay in the progress of the case. There has also sometimes been a problem with the instruction of unsuitable experts owing to confusion as to their precise field of expertise. To combat these problems an effort has been made to begin the creation of a Directory of Experts such as those that exist in the North of England and in Scotland to enable practitioners to have ready access to the details of suitable experts. In the year under report, progress has been somewhat slow as many experts already in demand see no need to register and those not so busy are sometimes hesitant to put themselves forward. However the Bar Council and the Law Society are being encouraged to progress the creation of a Directory, drawing on the successful model of the English North Eastern Bar and it is now confidently believed that a local on-line facility can indeed be created which may thereafter be a model for development into those other areas of the law that require experts of differing disciplines. This should widen the pool of available and suitably qualified experts and reduce the often considerable time spent in commissioning and obtaining reports.

The third area of activity that I will select for mention is that of the Educational Needs of Looked After Children. It is well known that such children significantly underachieve in education and that few leave education with worthwhile qualifications. This unacceptable situation requires to be determinedly addressed and Her Honour Judge Loughran has been and continues to be a vociferous and unrelenting champion of the cause. COAC took up the baton and encouraged the development of a detailed experimental pro forma to be contributed to by social workers, schools, parents and others concerned aimed at establishing children’s educational strengths, weaknesses and consequent needs. The results of the pilot study were collated and found to be highly encouraging and work is therefore now underway to develop a fully worked-up system to provide the information needed to ensure that these children, already disadvantaged by their family circumstances, do not also continue to suffer educational disadvantage while being looked after due to a failure to identify and address their particular needs in a timely and effective fashion. This is an important work in progress which COAC will continue to monitor and foster.

Quite apart from the specific project work of COAC of which the above are but three current examples, there is also its ongoing core work such as the regular meetings of the Family Court Business Committees in Belfast, Craigavon, Dungannon and Londonderry. These are now timetabled to be able to quickly feed their deliberations into the next COAC meeting ensuring that live issues can be swiftly reported and discussed. The organisation of these meetings and the attendance of the many individuals representing the disciplines concerned in children’s work require considerable commitment by their chairs who are the Judges of the relevant Family Care Centre or Family Proceedings Court and by all those who give their time to attend. Through these meetings many local problems are swiftly and amicably solved and issues of greater or more general importance are identified and swiftly reported to COAC for discussion and in most cases, resolution. The members and their secretariats deserve our thanks for all the effort they devote to ensuring that the Committees serve the interests not only of their own particular courts but of children’s justice province-wide.

I move towards a conclusion by thanking my fellow members of COAC for the most constructive and collaborative way in which they approach our work. I am constantly struck by the fact that whether they are from a legal, judicial, social work or administrative background and whatever may be their own professional imperatives, all such differences are invariably left aside during our meetings in the common search for good solutions for children. The willingness to freely share knowledge and experience and to avoid the espousal of any professional self-interest makes the task of chairing the group both pleasant and rewarding. I thank them for their continued patient indulgence of my efforts.

Finally and importantly I thank the COAC joint secretariat for its helpful and efficient administration of our business. The preparation and circulation of papers, the compilation of statistics and the arrangements for meetings together comprise a very considerable task which comprises but a small part of the secretaries’ overall duties and yet it is invariably accomplished without fault and without fuss. The members of COAC will I know agree that we could not function effectively without their uncomplaining efforts in our support and that we owe them a considerable and continuing debt of gratitude.

The Honourable Mr Justice Weir
Chair of the Children Order Advisory Committee

The Children Order, The Courts and The Committee

The Order

The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 (‘the Order’) came into operation on 4 November 1996. Widely recognised as the most comprehensive legislation relating to children ever introduced in Northern Ireland, it enshrines a number of key principles:

Court proceedings under the Order are known as ‘family proceedings’. The term also encompasses a range of proceedings under other legislation including:

The main court orders available under the Order are set out below under the broad headings of Private Law and Public Law. Orders concerning financial matters are not included:

Private Law


Public Law

In any family proceedings in which a question with respect to the welfare of a child arises, the court may make an Article 8 order. This can occur either where a person entitled to do so makes an application, or where the court gives that person leave, or if the court itself considers that such an order is necessary. There are four types of Article 8 orders. These may determine with whom a child is to reside or have contact, may prohibit particular steps being taken concerning the child without the consent of the court or any other directions regarding specific issues concerning the child.

A family assistance order is available in exceptional cases and is the only order where the consent of all parties is required. The order offers short-term support and advice to a family, perhaps following a divorce or separation and usually where one or more Article 8 orders have also been made.

The Courts

The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 confers concurrent jurisdiction on the High Court, County Courts and Magistrates’ Courts. It provides for two specialist classes of courts to hear any proceedings under the Order. At the County Court level, these are Family Care Centres and at the Magistrates’ Court level they are Family Proceedings Courts.

Family Care Centres – these courts are presided over by County Court Judges. Their function is to hear cases transferred to them and appeals from the Family Proceedings Court. There are four Family Care Centres, situated in Belfast, Craigavon, Dungannon and Londonderry.

Family Proceedings Courts – these courts are constituted as juvenile courts presided over by a District Judge (Magistrates’ Court) who sits with two lay magistrates. There are seven Family Proceedings Courts – one for each County Court division and they exercise jurisdiction throughout the division in which they are situated.

The concurrent jurisdiction referred to above is regulated to ensure that children’s cases are heard at the appropriate level of court and that proceedings regarding the same child are heard in the same court. Subject to the overriding principle that delay is likely to prejudice the welfare of the child, Children Order cases may be transferred upwards to the higher courts when specific criteria have been established. These criteria can include where the matter is exceptionally grave, complex or important, or to consolidate with other family proceedings.

The general rule is that all Public Law proceedings under the Children Order are to be commenced in the Family Proceedings Court. This is also the case with free standing Private Law applications i.e. those applications made when there are no other ongoing family proceedings. As regards connected Private Law applications e.g. where there are divorce proceedings pending in the County Court or High Court, such applications are required to be made at that court.

The Committee

In recognition of the importance of the Order to children and their families, COAC was established:

To advise Ministers on the progress of Children Order cases through the court system with a view to identifying special difficulties and reducing avoidable delay and

Work of Sub-Committees during 2009/10

Best Practice

The second edition of the Children Order Advisory Committee (COAC) Best Practice Guidance will be published in April 2010 by SLS Legal Publications (NI) and will be available from www.sls.qub.ac.uk.  No fee is to be charged by SLS for this publication.

The Institute of Child Care Research was commissioned to report on the usefulness and effectiveness of the first edition of the Best Practice Guidance.  The Best Practice Guidance Review Panel was anxious to ensure that the second edition addressed the recommendations in the research report.  One of the original researchers reviewed the second edition and found the document to be very impressive, user-friendly, detailed but clearly written with helpful links to the relevant appendices.  The research recommendations will be kept under review by the Review Panel.

The Guidance is kept up-to-date by its Review Panel which receives requests for amendment and update from the Chair and Committee of COAC, from suggestions at meetings, from the Judiciary, the Family Committees of the Bar Council and the Law Society NI and Communications Group, Northern Ireland Court Service. The minutes of the Review Panel meetings are considered at subsequent COAC meetings
Topics proposed for revision and/or future editions include:

It is clear that the work of the Review Panel is vital to keep the Best Practice Guidance constantly updated.  Proposals for future amendments are warmly welcomed by the Review Panel.

Electronic Communication

The Children Order Advisory Committee (COAC) established a working group in December 2008 with the remit of providing a recommendation to COAC on the best method of ensuring the secure transmission of documentation between parties/stakeholders in family proceedings.

In the first instance the working party concentrated on the communication between the various organisations in the public sector i.e. the Northern Ireland Court Service (NICtS); the Northern Ireland Guardian Ad Litem Agency (NIGALA); the Health and Social Care Trusts (HSC Trusts); and the Business Services Organisation, Directorate of Legal Services (BSO, DLS).  Upon examination, it was apparent that clear systems were already in place but it emerged that two additional protocols were necessary to ensure consistency of approach.  They are as follows:

HSC Trusts and BSO, DLS - this protocol was agreed and is currently operating between all five HSC Trusts and BSO, DLS.  Additionally, in order to assist with the transmission process, a ‘family solicitors and personal assistants’ electronic address book was produced and is now available on the HSC network to facilitate the addressing of secure emails from HSC family and child care social work staff to the BSO, DLS legal team.

BSO, DLS and NICtS – this protocol was agreed and is due to be piloted within the Belfast Family Proceedings Court with effect from July 2010. 

Stakeholders outside the Public Sector Networks – An electronic solution required to be sourced which would allow secure transmission to those situated outside the public sector namely, family law solicitors and barristers.  In 2009 the Criminal Justice Secure Mail System (CJSM) was identified as the preferred option. However in September 2009 CJSM indicated they were not in a position to accept applications relating to civil proceedings in Northern Ireland.

It was hoped that the position regarding CJSM might change by the financial year 2010/11 but in the event that that avenue might remain closed, other default options were examined.  A software application, ‘SecureDox’, sponsored by the Department of Finance and Personnel, was subjected to a trial by a select group of stakeholders.  The trial raised a number of technical issues and it was agreed that the product was unsuitable.  A further encryption product, ‘Secure Mail’, was tested between March and April 2010.  This proved to be successful thereby offering COAC an application which would be viable in the event that CJSM did not in fact become available.

There remains a consensus within working group members that CJSM should be adopted if at all possible.  We are advised that CJSM intends to take a Business Case to the GSI Accreditation Working Group later in 2010 to seek approval for civil and family law work to be managed under the CJSM network.  We in Northern Ireland eagerly await the outcome.

Multi-Disciplinary Literature

In the period covered by this report, the Sub-Committee produced two editions of the Multi-Disciplinary Newsletter. These two Newsletters and all earlier editions can be accessed on the Northern Ireland Court Service website at www.courtsni.gov.uk.  To view a Newsletter, select “Publications” and then from the list on the left side of the screen, select “Family Law and Childcare Literature”; the various editions of the Newsletter are displayed in date order so that you may open the appropriate edition. Some of the Newsletters have been archived however a link is provided on the webpage enabling access to these earlier publications.

The Newsletter is divided into three sections. The first section lists the content of the Newsletter with links to the more detailed summaries contained in the next two sections. The second section contains the information exchange whilst the third section contains the summaries of key literature. The material in this section is arranged under four subject headings: Law Reports; Child Welfare; Medicine and Psychology; and Youth Justice.

The aim of the Newsletter since its launch has been to share information relating to children and families that will assist professionals across a range of disciplines to discharge their responsibilities under The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. Given the responses that the Editorial Committee has received over the past few years, I am pleased to say that this aim appears to be being achieved.

The Newsletter was established as an electronic document. It has continued in that form throughout its existence and has never been produced in hard copy.  This had many advantages including:

However distribution solely by electronic means has some disadvantages.  There is no question that even in this time of widespread computer use, a significant number of people are still more comfortable reading a hard copy of a publication rather than reading it on screen. Also, anything produced in hard copy tends to have more initial impact on its readers when it drops through their letter-box or is left in their office.  They also have a longer “shelf life” than will an entry on a website and will be read by more than only the intended recipient.

For all these reasons the Sub-Committee will take a careful look at the future of the Newsletter in the coming months. We are anxious to build on its success to date and plan for the future.

I would like to thank all members of the Editorial Committee for giving of their time and talents so willingly.  Most of all I would like to thank Dr John Devaney for the enormous amount he continues to do as the editor and driving force behind the Newsletter. What we have achieved would not have been possible without his contribution.

Work of Family Court Business Committees during 2009/10

Belfast

This Committee met three times during the period covered in this report. The composition of the Committee reflects the users of Belfast Family Proceedings Court and Belfast Family Care Centre.  The members of the Committee include representatives of the relevant Health and Social Care Trusts (HSC Trusts), Education and Library Board, Women’s Aid, Lakewood Regional Secure Care Centre, Courts Children’s Service, Northern Ireland Guardian ad Litem Agency, Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission, the Bar, Solicitors, Northern Ireland Court Service and the Judiciary.

The Committee discussed a wide range of issues, some of them new and some which appear in this report from year to year.

In addition to our discussions we also had a presentation by a member of the staff of Lakewood Regional Secure Care Centre.  She gave a very informative account of the work of the Centre which provoked a lively debate within the Committee.

The early part of the period covered by this report was at the time when counsel refused to attend the Family Care Centre because of a dispute between the Bar and the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission over the issue of what constituted reasonable remuneration for appearing there.  Needless to say, this had an effect on the number of cases being processed by the Family Care Centre.  The Committee discussed this matter but although it was a matter of great concern, it was felt that it was a matter on which the Committee must remain neutral.  Fortunately the dispute was resolved and the Family Care Centre resumed normal business.

The Guide to Case Management in Public Law Proceedings (GCM) was introduced during the year and the Committee asked that the effect it was having on the progress of cases should be monitored.

The Committee sought information as to whether there had been a noticeable increase in the number of Public Law applications in our courts following the “Baby P” case in England.  In fact, the statistics showed that there had not been substantial increase in the number of applications.  Some members of the Committee felt these figures should be treated with caution however, because the pre-proceedings protocols required by the GCM may have had the effect of postponing the issuing of Public Law proceedings until the issues have been identified. The prior identification of the issues should of course, shorten the overall length of proceedings.

It was noted by the Committee that the system introduced in Belfast Family Care Centre for Referral Forms when an Article 4 Welfare Report is sought is working well. It helps the HSC Trust identify the child, identify the correct social worker involved and to identify the issues between the parties.

Although this referral system is working well, the Committee are concerned at the continuing delays in providing reports.  The delays seem to be endemic to our family law system and the hearings in a number of cases have had to be adjourned as a result.  It has been pointed out that a period of two months represents one percent of childhood so any delay that is not purposeful must be eliminated so far as possible.  The Committee has tried to identify the causes of delay and asks that members, including the judiciary, do what they or their organisations can to avoid delay.

The Committee expressed concern that the Courts Children’s Service did not deal with cases in the Family Care Centre, only in the Family Proceedings Court.  This issue remains unresolved.

There was also discussion as to whether some courts were too ready to use interim care orders in Private Law cases.  It was agreed that this was a matter for judicial discretion.

Craigavon

Committee meetings took place each term, chaired by Her Honour Judge McReynolds or on occasion, by District Judge (Magistrates’ Court) White. The major issues discussed were as follows:

Monitoring of the number of families availing of the services at Armagh, Craigavon and Lisburn Contact Centres
Statistics have continued to be closely scrutinized in relation to number of families, children, type of service provided and method of referral.

Case Management in Public Law Proceedings
Overall, the Committee had mixed feelings about the progress of Case Management. Some members agreed that the pre-proceedings were partially effective. Others indicated that the paperwork for practitioners and staff was cumbersome and there were preliminary reservations about cost effectiveness. However, all agreed it was an improvement on the current English version.

Improvement of facilities at Lisburn Courthouse
The Committee expressed its approval at the improvements.

Barnardo’s Southern HSC Trust Mediation Service
Anne Brant, Family Mediator, gave a presentation to the Committee on this topic. She explained that Newry Family Resource Centre had been commissioned by the Department of Health, Social Services & Public Safety (DHSSPS) to provide an independent Family Mediation Service at an early stage in separation and/or divorce proceedings (before a court order is made) to children, young people and their families in the Southern HSC Trust area. Solicitors, parents and the court can access the service. Following an initial intake meeting parties are offered up to 3-4 sessions of mediation to assist them to reach agreements in respect of their children. If full agreement is reached it may be incorporated into a court order if necessary.

Growth in international cases; dissemination of acquired knowledge in respect of issues arising in Public Law and Private Law international cases
Throughout the year, the Chair has repeatedly referred to shortcomings in the drafting of contact agreements between parties in circumstances where one party resides in Northern Ireland and the other in another European Union country. Contact arrangements may form part of agreements for incorporation on foot of divorce decrees. Certificates under Council Regulation (EC) No 2201/2003 (Brussels IIa) are frequently neglected and practitioner members were asked to attempt to raise awareness of this requirement. The Chair also drew attention to Article 20 (continuity of a child’s linguistic background) of UNCRC (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) which was frequently overlooked by lawyers and HSC Trusts.

Availability of Court Time
This theme has been the topic of frequent discussion in respect of both Craigavon and Lisburn Family Proceedings Courts and Craigavon Care Centre.

Dungannon

The Committee met on three occasions within this reporting period.

The family court system continues to function at an adequate level within the Division with no substantial issues to report.

However, difficulties continue to arise from the inadequate provision of Court Children’s Officers.  The problems in the east of the Division, as identified in earlier reports, persist although there was a degree of improvement in the latter part of the reporting period.

In the Fermanagh & Tyrone area, difficulties arose when the Court Children’s Officer was on maternity leave and her replacement was on sick leave.  Eventually this was resolved.

It was difficult to gauge the effect of the implementation of the new Guide to Case Management in Public Law Proceedings (introduced from 1st October 2009) due to the dramatic decline in the number of HSC Trust applications.

Londonderry

The Committee met on three occasions during this period. The minutes of these meetings reflect recurring issues focusing on such matters as performance, accommodation, child contact centres, Article 4 Welfare Reports, the COAC Best Practice Guidance and most importantly, the Guide to Case Management in Public Law Proceedings (GCM).

In Children Order applications, the target of receipt to first listing (within ten weeks) was met fully during this period.

Concerns were raised about the misuse of the children’s room by unauthorised persons and it was agreed that this room should be fitted with an access keypad, the code for which would only be shared with appropriate persons. This work was done and was fully effective.

At our September meeting, the Deputy Director of the Northern Ireland Guardian Ad Litem Agency (NIGALA) advised the Committee that there was an increase in the Agency’s work of almost 70% between April and August 2009. No additional funding had been found and the Agency was considering the possibilities for making efficiencies. Concerns were expressed about any reduction in the vital service provided by the Agency and this concern was conveyed to the Director of NIGALA in October 2009. Amongst other issues discussed was the outworking of the GCM.

Over the relevant period there were continuing concerns regarding requests for Article 4 Welfare Reports. Delays in forwarding requests were identified and this issue was dealt with satisfactorily. Other issues such as the volume of requests and difficulties in obtaining social work reports were addressed.

The Committee welcomed the increase in the number of child contact centres in Northern Ireland. It was acknowledged that these centres play a vital role in helping families deal with contact issues and must be supported fully whatever the current financial climate. During this period the Committee was involved in fund raising for the local child contact centres in Londonderry and Limavady.

Issues Considered/Addressed by the Committee during 2009/10

Appointment of Experts

A continuing cause of delay in family cases, both Public and Private Law, is the appointment of suitable experts. Section 5.17 and Section 9 of the Children Order Advisory Committee (COAC) Best Practice Guidance (second edition) gives guidance on the appointment of experts and the issue of their appointment is also dealt with in the Guide to Case Management in Public Law Proceedings, in particular at Stage 3, 5.2(9)(g): the First Directions Hearing.  The legal profession must attend court with the appropriate names and availability of experts (or at least the time by which a name will be provided) and an agreed letter of instruction.

There is an ongoing initiative to attempt to compile a Directory of Experts for family law practitioners in this jurisdiction, with the aim of speeding up the appointment process when court approval is to be sought or has been granted.  This is particularly important in cases of alleged non-accidental injury or when it is deemed necessary to assess the parent’s parenting capacity or ability to participate in the proceedings.  It is important to ensure that the relevant professional bodies such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Northern Ireland are aware of the initiative and that all potential experts are afforded an opportunity to provide their relevant details for inclusion in the Directory.  This would include their curriculum vitae, details of their expertise and experience together with their likely fees.  Unfortunately some experts who are currently instructed in family cases have opted not to be included in the Directory for whatever reason.

The Legal Services Commission has for some time been attempting to introduce financial limits to the hourly rate and/or overall fee paid by public funds for different categories of experts in family cases.  There are agreed financial limits for experts in other areas of civil law.
The Legal Aid Pro Forma – Expert Instruction (see page 26-34 of the COAC 10th Annual Report) was introduced to expedite the request for the Legal Services Commission approval for experts’ fees.  This pro forma, if properly completed prior to the court appearance to seek leave to appoint the expert, considerably reduces the waiting time for a decision to be made for legal aid authority.  The pro forma has now been introduced into the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court.

The Law Society NI Library Service gives whatever assistance it can to solicitors seeking details of suitable experts and while the Law Society NI had been involved in the attempt to create a Directory of Expert Witnesses for family law practitioners the initiative is now being carried forward by the Family Committee of the Bar Council.

Joint appointments should be considered at the earliest moment and a joint letter of instruction should be drafted and agreed where possible, in accordance with Section 9.4 of the COAC Best Practice Guidance. Appendix 32 to the Guidance provides a template draft letter of instruction to an expert in children’s cases.  The drafting of the letter of instruction to a jointly appointed expert had since the introduction of the Children Order been a task undertaken by the HSC Trust’s legal representative, with an opportunity for input by the other parties legal representatives.  With the advent of the Human Rights Act 1998, fear of perceptions of bias in favour of the HSC Trust and the recommendations of the ‘Bearing Good Witness Report’1 , responsibility for drafting the letter of instruction passed to the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) or the GAL’s legal representative, who must be a member of the Children Order Panel accredited by the Law Society NI.  The debate continues as to which legal representative takes the lead in the drafting of the letter of instruction as responsibility for creating this letter of instruction undoubtedly merges into the issue of trying to find a suitable and available expert in a timely fashion and seeking legal aid approval of that experts fee.

COAC welcomes all reasonable initiatives to speed up the process of finding and appointing a suitable expert witness in cases where such a witness is necessary to ensure a fair hearing.

Educational Needs of Looked After Children

A particular concern of the courts is in relation to the educational needs of Looked after Children. The courts’ aim is to have in place a framework to ensure that the educational needs of these young people is properly addressed by the relevant Health and Social Care Trusts (HSC Trusts). Her Honour Judge Loughran has been especially active in seeking to secure the provision of suitable measures.

At the request of the Children Order Advisory Committee (COAC), the Looked After Children in Education (LACE) Project, which brings together representatives from key Government departments including the Department of Education (DE) and  the Department of Health, Social Services & Public Safety (DHSSPS) and all agencies who contribute to the education of Looked after Children, in particular, the HSC Trusts, Education and Library Boards, schools, the Youth Justice Agency, the youth service and other community groups, was asked to develop a detailed education pro forma which would be completed by all HSC Trusts and relevant education services in respect of the educational needs and aspirations of these children and young people.

The court pro forma was piloted across the five HSC Trusts and corresponding Education and Library Boards from September 2008 to May 2009 and an evaluation report was compiled.  Overall feedback from respondents was positive. One of the recommendations from the evaluation was that the pro forma should be part of a fully integrated system where information was streamlined and duplication kept to a minimum across other processes including the UNOCINI2 framework, the Court Care Plan, care planning and the use of Personal Education Plans (PEPs).

Work is ongoing to ensure that these recommendations are taken forward and are integrated into both social care and education systems and processes.

Emergency Protection Orders - Implementation of Recommendations

As a result of recommendations endorsed by the Children Order Advisory Committee (COAC), the Northern Ireland Court Service introduced new arrangements from the 1 October 2009 to facilitate the conduct of ‘Out of Hours’ emergency applications under Articles 63, 67 and 69 of The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 (‘the Order’).

This involved the issue of new operational guidance which accompanied training for court staff and revisions to the Lay Magistrates' Emergency Protection Order Pack to extend its usage to incorporate the participation of District Judges (Magistrates’ Court) in the ‘Out of Hours’ service. The new arrangements have been welcomed by all practitioners in this area of family law and provide for:

The new arrangements are successfully operating at the following designated court venues: Ballymena, Craigavon and Lisburn (rota basis), Londonderry, Newry, Newtownards, Old Townhall Building at Belfast and Omagh.

Guide To Case Management In Public Law Proceedings

The Guide to Case Management in Public Law Proceedings came into operation so as to apply to all proceedings under Part V of The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 issued on or after 1 October 2009.  The Guide is a tool to be used proactively to assist in achieving the fundamental object of securing an outcome in the best interests of the child without delay. 

There are six key stages set out in the Guide from key stage one, pre-proceeding stage to key stage six, the trial.  The intermediate stages are:

(a)  Key stage 2 which deals with the issue of proceedings.  At this stage the Health and Social Care Trust (HSC Trust) is required to bring clear definition to its case and to provide documents. It crucially covers the appointment of a representative for the child.  Thereafter, it is incumbent on the child’s representative to immediately and actively enter the arena on behalf of the child. 

(b)  Key stage 3 which deals with the first directions hearing.   At this stage, directions are being given to bring definition to what is being said on behalf of the parents and on behalf of the child.  The parents are required to respond at a much earlier stage than had previously been the practice in order to ensure early identification of the important issues and elimination or resolution of the less or unimportant issues. Also the Guardian ad Litem on behalf of the child has an obligation at an earlier and therefore more effective stage to pro-actively identify the issues and to provide an initial analysis. 

(c)  Key stage 4 which is the case management hearing.  It is expected to occur by day 45.  By this stage the evidence should be complete or almost complete and the target is that this hearing should deal with all outstanding case management issues.

(d) Key stage 5 which is the final review hearing prior to the trial.

The strength of the Guide is that it emerged out of our experiences in this jurisdiction and also out of an extensive prior consultation process.  It was approved by the Children Order Advisory Committee (COAC).

Prior to implementation of the Guide there was an extensive training process for all those who participate in Public Law proceedings in Northern Ireland.  That training included 600 social work staff and the staff of the Guardian ad Litem Agency.  Both branches of the legal profession organised Continuing Professional Development events addressed solely to the structure and ethos of the Guide. 

A system of monitoring has been established to determine how the Guide is working in practice which includes the gathering of statistical information in relation to proceedings.  In the courts, statistical information is gathered via a form available to all family court staff.  In addition, the system includes monitoring of the pre-proceedings stage by the HSC Trusts to determine whether it is achieving early resolution and therefore diverting work from the courts, accomplishing an outcome in the best interests of the child without delay.  Preliminary indications from both the monitoring process and from subjective reports have been that the Guide has facilitated earlier resolution of family and Public Law cases and has helped to identify early the substantive issues to be resolved in the judicial process.

Further assessment is going to be facilitated by the statistics which are being gathered by the Northern Ireland Court Service, the Guardian ad Litem Agency and HSC Trusts.

The intention is to include the Guide to Case Management in Public Law Proceedings in the COAC Best Practice Guidance.

Appendix 1

The Membership of the Committee (1st April 2009 to 31st March 2010)


Chair
The Honourable Mr Justice Weir High Court Judge (Family Division)
High Court of Justice in Northern Ireland
Deputy Chair
The Honourable Mr Justice Stephens High Court Judge (Family Division)
High Court of Justice in Northern Ireland
Members
His Honour Judge Rodgers County Court Judge and Family Judge of the Belfast Family Care Centre
Her Honour Judge McReynolds County Court Judge and Family Judge of the Craigavon Family Care Centre
His Honour Judge McFarland County Court Judge and Family Judge the Dungannon Family Care Centre
His Honour Judge Marrinan Recorder of Londonderry and Family Judge of the Londonderry Family Care Centre
Master Wells Master of the Office of Care and Protection, High Court of Justice in Northern Ireland
District Judge (Magistrates’ Court) Meehan Council of District Judges (Magistrates’ Court) Northern Ireland
Miss Brenda Donnelly Official Solicitor to the Court of Judicature of Northern Ireland
Mr Perry Donaldson Chair of the Northern Ireland Lay Magistrates Association
Mrs Siobhan Keegan QC Barrister at Law
Ms Arleen Elliott
(replacing Mrs Catherine Dixon with effect from 21/01/2010)
Solicitor
Mr Ronnie Williamson Executive Director of the Northern Ireland Guardian Ad Litem Agency
Mr Fergal Bradley Head of Child Care Policy Directorate, DHSSPS
Mr Sean Holland Acting Chief Officer, Office of Social Services
Mr Brian Dornan Representative of the Association of Directors of Health & Social Services Boards
Ms Kathryn Minnis Directorate of Legal Services, Central Services Agency
Mrs Laura McPolin Civil Law Reform Division, DFP
Ms Kathryn Stevenson Children in Northern Ireland
Mr Jim Coffey Northern Ireland Court Service
Mrs Audrey Quigley (DHSSPS)}
Austin Harper (NI Court Service)}
Secretariat

Appendix 2

Statistics

The statistics which form the basis of the tables and figures in this appendix are collected from Children Order business in all the courts in Northern Ireland. Except where otherwise indicated, all figures and tables cover the financial year 2009/103.

Wardship Actions

At the time of introduction of the Children Order in November 1996, a marked decline in the number of wardship actions made in the High Court was observed reflecting the restrictions placed on such applications by the Children Order. Since the introduction of the Order, wardship actions have remained at a consistently low level with no significant change observed in recent years (Table 1) since the initial sharp decrease following the introduction of the Order (Figure 1).

Table 1: Wardship Actions (April 2005 – March 2010)

Wardship Actions 05/06 06/07 07/08 08/09 09/10
Non- Emergency 1 16 2 21 14
Immediate Provision 17 1 11 6 10
Jurisdiction 1 0 1 2 4

Figure 1: Wardship Actions (Trend statistics 1995 – 2009/10)

Applications and Disposals

95 96 97 98 99 00 00/01 01/02 01/02 02/03 03/04 04/05 05/06 06/07 07/08 08/09 09/10
Non emergency 140 135 7 3 1 0 0 4 4 9 2 2 1 16 2 21 14
Immediate provision 182 126 1 1 3 0 8 7 7 13 15 15 17 1 11 6 10
Jurisdiction 85 51 0 6 14 0 16 8 8 1 0 2 1 0 1 2 4

Tables 2a and 2b show the number of applications lodged and disposed of in all court tiers for 2009/10. Applications lodged out-numbered disposals causing an increasing number of outstanding applications.  For a breakdown of applications received and dealt with by the Family Care Centres and their related courts, please see Annex 1 (Tables 8 and 9).

Table 2a: Applications 01/04/09 – 31/03/10

Applications High Court County Court Magistrates’ Court Total
High Court Care Centre Other FPC Other
Public Law 21 19 0 491 0 531
Private Law 148 141 0 3765 0 4054
Total 169 160 0 4256 0 4585

Table 2b: Disposals 01/04/09 – 31/03/10

Disposals High Court County Court Magistrates’ Court Total
High Court Care Centre Other FPC Other
Public Law 56 68 0 323 0 447
Private Law 146 206 0 2959 0 3311
Total 202 274 0 3282 0 3758

Figure 2 shows the number of applications lodged and disposed of each year since 2005.

Figure 2. Applications Lodged and Disposed of (April 2005 – March 2010)

Year Lodged Disposed of
2005/06 5939 5683
2006/07 5211 4875
2007/08 4030 3536
2008/09 4025 3636
2009/10 4585 3758

During 2009/10, 12% of applications lodged concerned Public Law and 88% concerned Private Law.  In terms of disposals, 12% of applications disposed of concerned Public Law and 88% concerned Private Law (See Figures 3a & 3b).

Figure 3(a): Applications Lodged (April 2009 – March 2010)

Percentage
Public Law 12%
Private Law 88%

Figure 3(b): Applications Disposed of (April 2009 – March 2010)

Percentage
Public Law 12%
Private Law 88%

The Figures 4(a) to 4(c) depict applications lodged and disposed of in each year from 2005/06 to 2009/10 by the type of orders made.

Figure 4a depicts the number of applications for supervision orders lodged and disposed.  Figures show that the supervision orders made increased from 56 to 74 between 2008/09 and 2009/10. Overall, the numbers of applications for supervision orders lodged and disposed of are relatively small and any trend should therefore be treated with caution.

Figure 4(a): Children Order Public Law Applications Lodged and Disposed of (April 2005 - March 2010)

Year Lodged Disposed of
2005/06 12 12
2006/07 31 18
2007/08 12 29
2008/09 13 56
2009/10 15 74

NB: Disposed of figure refers to number of orders made from April 2007 onwards

Figure 4b depicts the number of applications for care orders lodged and disposed of. Figures show that these orders have shown a downward trend over the past five years. Figures over the past five years have decreased by 40% for care applications lodged and 22% for such applications disposed of.

Figure 4(b)

Year Lodged Disposed of
2005/06 357 306
2006/07 336 240
2007/08 287 259
2008/09 219 207
2009/10 214 238

NB: Disposed of figure refers to number of orders made from April 2007 onwards

Figure 4c depicts the number of applications for emergency protection orders lodged and disposed of. Figures show that these orders have shown no overall trend since 2005/06. Overall, the numbers of applications for emergency protection orders lodged and disposed of are relatively small and any apparent trend should therefore be treated with caution.

Figure 4(c)

Year Lodged Disposed of
2005/06 52 57
2006/07 32 28
2007/08 55 80
2008/09 56 60
2009/10 75 107

NB: Disposed of figure refers to number of orders made from April 2007 onwards

In terms of the court tier for lodgments and disposals, numbers are depicted below. Figure 4d shows applications lodged and disposed of in the Family Proceedings Court; there is an increase this year after the previous 5 years have shown a decrease. 2009/10 figures show an increase in lodgments (15%) and an increase in disposals (6%) since 2008/09 in these courts.

Figure 4(d): Applications Lodged & Disposed of in Family Proceedings Court (April 2005 - March 2010)

Year Lodged Disposed of
2005/06 5451 5200
2006/07 4802 4484
2007/08 3673 3061
2008/09 3699 3092
2009/10 4256 3282

Figure 4e shows applications lodged and disposed of in the Family Care Centre; these have remained relatively steady over the past 5 years. 2009/10 figures show a decrease in lodgments (6%) and in disposals (29%) since 2008/09 in these courts.

Figure 4(e): Applications Lodged & Disposed of in Family Care Centre (April 2005 - March 2010)

Year Lodged Disposed of
2005/06 308 317
2006/07 252 249
2007/08 174 313
2008/09 170 388
2009/10 160 274

Figure 4f shows applications lodged and disposed of in the High Court; these have remained relatively steady over the past 5 years. 2009/10 figures show an increase in both lodgments (8%) and disposals (28%) since 2008/09 at this court tier.

Figure 4(f): Applications Lodged & Disposed of in High Court (April 2005 - March 2010)

Year Lodged Disposed of
2005/06 180 166
2006/07 157 142
2007/08 183 162
2008/09 156 158
2009/10 169 202

Care applications and supervision applications accounted for 50% of Public Law orders in 2009/10 (Figure 5a). Emergency Protection orders made up 10% of all Public Law orders in 2008/09 and make up 17% in 2009/10; secure accommodation made up 28% of all Public Law orders in 2008/09 and 7% of all Public Law orders in 2009/10. The percentage of orders classed as ‘other’ has increased from 9% in 2008/09 to 12% in 2009/10.

Figure 5(a): Public Law Orders Made (April 2009 – March 2010)

Percentage
Care 38%
Supervision 12%
Education Supervision 4%
Emergency Protection 17%
Secure Accommodation 7%
Article 53 Contact 7%
Recovery 3%
Other Orders / Applications 12%

The most common types of order made in Private Law were ‘other orders/applications' (38%) and contact (permission) (34%) (Figure 5b). In 2008/09, contact (permission) orders were 28% of all Private Law orders and make up 34% in 2009/10; residence orders in 2008/09 were 18% of all Private Law orders and make up 20% in 2009/10.  The percentage of orders classed as ‘other’ has decreased from 48% in 2008/09 to 38% in 2009/10.

Figure 5(b): Private Law Orders Made (April 2009 – March 2010)

Percentage
Contact Permission 24%
Contact Refusal 0%
Parental Responsibility 3%
Residence 20%
Prohibitive Steps 2%
Specific Issues 2%
Other Orders / Applications 38%

Transfers

Table 3 shows the number of cases transferred and the reasons for transfer quoted. The most numerous reason given for transfer from the Family Proceedings Court and from the Family Care Centre was complexity (57% and 65% respectively). During 2009/10 transfers from the Family Proceeding Court made up 77% of all applications transferred.

Table 3: Transfer of Business (Reasons) 01/04/09– 31/03/10

  Transferred From: Total
FPC FCC High Court
Reason Complexity 287 84 0 371
Consolidation 90 16 3 109
Convenience 13 8 2 23
Gravity 22 1 0 23
Jurisdiction 64 10 1 75
Returned to Lower Court 0 4 11 15
Separate Representation for Child 7 0 0 7
Urgency 3 6 0 9
Point of Law 11 1 0 12
Public Interest 2 0 0 2
Other 2 0 0 2
Total 501 130 17 648

Disposal Times4

Table 4 and Figure 6 show the relative disposal times for both Public Law and Private Law cases in each court tier for 2009/10. In the Family Proceedings Court, average disposal times were 26 weeks for Public Law and 24 weeks for Private Law cases. In the Family Care Centre, it was 56 weeks for Public Law cases and 46 weeks for Private Law cases. Public Law cases in the High Court took 99 weeks5 and Private Law cases took 45 weeks.  Lodgment to disposal times for Public Law cases have increased by 9 weeks while disposal times for Private Law have decreased by 1 week between 2008/09 and 2009/10 overall.  It should be noted that due to relatively small numbers at the High Court and the Family Care Centre, it takes very few lengthy cases to substantially affect the average time taken to dispose of cases.

Table 4: Disposal Times 01/04/09 – 31/03/10

Lodged to final hearing times (in weeks) for cases entered in the designated courts
  High Court Care Centre Family Proceedings Total
Public Law 98.5 56.0 26.1 39.7
Private Law 44.6 46.3 23.7 26.0

Figure 6: Disposal Time in Weeks (April 2009 – March 2010)

Court Type Private Public
All Court Types 26 40
FPC 24 26
Care Centre 46 56
High Court 45 99

Disposal Types

Table 5 shows the distribution of the different types of disposal made for 2009/10.  Consent orders accounted for 55% of orders made.

Table 5: Orders and Disposals 01/04/09 – 31/03/10

  Order Made by Consent Other Order Total
  Adjourn Generally 0 39 39
Article 8 Contact Order 1861 736 2597
C18 – Final Order 200 309 509
Care Order 121 117 238
Contact with a child in Care 2 45 47
Declaration of Parentage 54 21 75
Discharge Care Order 38 4 42
Discharge Non Molestation Order 0 4 4
Discharge Prohibited Steps Order 14 11 25
Dismissed 27 240 267
Education Supervision Order 0 24 24
Emergency Protection Order (EPO) 23 66 89
Emergency Protection Order (EPO) – out of hours 0 18 18
Extension of an EPO 9 11 20
Family Assistance Order 10 9 19
Financial Provision 5 9 14
Leave to change surname by which child is known 8 12 20
Leave to remove child from the UK 2 4 6
Non-Molestation Order 0 27 27
Order or Directions Final 62 30 92
Order of No Order (Final Order) 41 47 88
Other Order 21 373 394
Parental Responsibility Order 208 62 270
Prohibited Steps Order 59 122 181
Recovery of a child 2 14 16
Refusal of Article 3 Legal Aid Certification 0 3 3
Residence Order 1043 508 1551
Secure Accommodation Order 14 30 44
Specific Issues Order 89 96 185
Strike Out Order 19 140 159
Supervision Order 53 21 74
Terminating Appointment of Guardian Ad Litem 324 141 465
Withdrawn 331 445 776
Total 4640 3738 8378

NB: Final orders exclude Article 3 Legal Aid orders

In 2008/09, 11,092 interim orders were made.  The number of interim orders increased by 43% to 15,846 in 2009/10.  These were made up primarily of contact, residence and care orders (Table 6).

Table 6: Interim Orders Made 01/04/09 – 31/03/10

Business Interim Order
Parental Responsibility 10
Contact: Permission 7358
Residence 1406
Prohibited Steps 416
Specific Issues 38
Care 6065
Contact with a child in care 1
Supervision 276
Secure Accommodation 202
Non-molestation 70
Refuse contact with a child in care 4
Total 15846

Age of Children

Table 7 shows the distribution of children's ages. Just over one third (37%) of children involved in cases were within the 0-4 years old category (Figure 7).

Table 7: Children Subject to Applications

Age and Gender of children involved6: 01/04/09 – 31/03/10
  Age Range Number of children in respect of whom orders have been made
0-4 5-8 9-12 13-16
Male 920 673 559 264 2416
Female 870 722 506 297 2395
Unknown 11 3 2 0 16
Total 1801 1398 1067 561 4827

6 Includes children not subject to an application disposed of. 

Figure 7: Age and Gender of Children Involved (April 2009 - March 2010)

Age (Years) Male Female
0 to 4 920 870
5 to 8 673 722
9 to 12 559 506
13 to 16 264 297

Annual Comparisons

Figure 8 presents the number of orders and disposals for 2005/06 to 2009/10.  Parental responsibility disposals increased by 29% between 2008/09 and 2009/10.  Contact (permission) disposals increased by 19% between 2008/09 and 2009/10. The number of applications for residence orders disposed of also increased by 9% between 2008/09 and 2009/10 and care applications disposed of increased by 15% between 2008/09 and 2009/10.

Figure 8: Orders & Disposals (April 2005 - March 2010)

Year Parental Responsibility Contact Permission Residence Care
2005/06 384 2595 1520 292
2006/07 315 2471 1449 280
2007/08 168 2167 1363 259
2008/09 210 2182 1419 207
2009/10 270 2597 1551 238

Annex 1

Table 8: Business Volume - Care Centres and Related Courts Applications Lodged: 01/04/09 – 31/03/10

  Public Private Total
Belfast
Care Centre 13 44 57
County Court 0 0 0
Family Proceedings Court 257 2057 2314
Magistrates’ Court 0 0 0
Total 270 2101 2371
Dungannon
Care Centre 1 4 5
County Court 0 0 0
Family Proceedings Court 65 199 264
Magistrates’ Court 0 0 0
Total 66 203 269
Londonderry
Care Centre 1 3 4
County Court 0 0 0
Family Proceedings Court 34 495 529
Magistrates’ Court 0 0 0
Total 35 498 533
Craigavon
Care Centre 4 90 94
County Court 0 0 0
Family Proceedings Court 135 1014 1149
Magistrates’ Court 0 0 0
Total 139 1104 1243

Table 9: Business Volume - Care Centres and Related Courts Disposals: 01/04/09 – 31/03/10

  Public Private Total
Belfast
Care Centre 40 90 130
County Court 0 0 0
Family Proceedings Court 159 1607 1766
Magistrates’ Court 0 0 0
Total 199 1697 1896
Dungannon
Care Centre 0 8 8
County Court 0 0 0
Family Proceedings Court 61 180 241
Magistrates’ Court 0 0 0
Total 61 188 249
Londonderry
Care Centre 7 23 30
County Court 0 0 0
Family Proceedings Court 17 387 404
Magistrates’ Court 0 0 0
Total 24 410 434
Craigavon
Care Centre 21 85 106
County Court 0 0 0
Family Proceedings Court 86 785 871
Magistrates’ Court 0 0 0
Total 107 870 977

Appendix 3

Article 4 Welfare Reports – Overview (1st April 2009 to 31st March 2010)

Court Location New Reports requested in period Outstanding Reports to be filed in period New Reports to be filed in period Reports Filed In Period Extensions sought in period Otherwise Accounted For in Period
Ballymena 127 107 27 98 34 27
Belfast FPC & FCC 85 137 22 83 109 26
Craigavon FPC & FCC 42 51 4 23 43 6
Dungannon FPC & FCC 23 30 6 26 9 7
CoJ (High Court) 81 64 31 62 32 15
Lisburn 20 36 2 13 33 5
Londonderry FPC & FCC 44 64 8 44 42 12
Newry 29 56 1 18 56 8
Newtownards 240 252 83 206 169 35
TOTAL 691 797 184 573 527 141

NB: More than one extension can be applied for in the same case

FPC - Family Proceedings Court
FCC - Family Care Centre



Footnotes

  1. A Report by the Chief Medical Officer published 30 October 2006, DOH
  2. A common assessment form ‘Understanding the Needs of Children in Northern Ireland’ for understanding and meeting the needs of vulnerable children in Northern Ireland
  3. Prior to 2007/08 there may be more than one application per child and more than one child per case; in 2007 a new computer system was introduced therefore caution should be used when comparing figures prior to 2007.
  4. Disposal times include the time spent at other court tiers before determination.
    5 Waiting time of 99 weeks includes one case from 1996.