The development of an England-wide protocol used by all local authorities for pre-proceedings work would improve consistency of social work practice across the country and help speed up the care proceedings process, says Bridget Lindley, principal legal adviser at charity Family Rights Group.
Up until now, some councils have developed their own models for working with families at risk of having a child taken into care. The work has a dual function: to establish if there are alternatives to a child being taken into care, and, where this is not possible, to do assessments and planning that can process the case quicker once it gets to court.
Lindley said developing effective pre-proceedings work would be crucial if social work departments are to achieve the government's target for completing all cases that go to family court within 26 weeks from next year.
Writing in the latest edition of the Family Law Journal, Lindley said: "If the work is not done to engage families before proceedings start so that the necessary evidence is available for the court to evaluate options for the child within the family network, the target of 26 weeks for care cases may well not be met.
"Furthermore, a national protocol would help promote a consistent approach of working with families, which can be very challenging work in the pre-proceedings context."
Lindley added that a national protocol would be based on successful local models already developed, and cover legal and practice frameworks; what works in engaging families; best practice interventions; and alternatives to care orders.
"There are effective, time efficient, innovative approaches being used in localities in the UK and internationally that engage families in making safe plans for their children (such as identifying alternative family care arrangements if the child can't remain with their parents).
"Moreover, the impact of legal aid reforms on solicitors firms means there are many fewer willing or able to give pre-proceedings advice to families, making it all the more essential that there are positive family engagement models/services being used or commissioned by children's services," she added.
A national approach would also minimise the risk of judges refusing councils' care order applications due to a lack of pre-proceedings work, said Lindley.
In a recent case, Mrs Justice Pauffley made a shared residence order in favour of the mother and grandmother where the original local authority care plan was for adoption, and was highly critical of the lack of pre-proceedings work done with the family.