The findings are published in the report, District Court Child Care Proceedings: A National Overview, by the Child Care Law Reporting Project (CCLRP), headed by Dr Carol Coulter.
The CCLRP’s survey finds that child care cases are often heard in over-crowded courts, with inadequate waiting areas, alongside criminal and other cases.
The news will come as no surprise to dedicated family law practitioners, who have been complaining about the draconian conditions for years.
CCLRP director Dr Carol Coulter (pictured) is calling for urgent legislation to establish a specialist family court structure, saying: “This overview of child care proceedings in all the districts, including more than one court in some districts, underlines the point made previously by the CCLRP that a specialist family court is urgently needed, with dedicated child care days separate from the private family list.”
The CCLRP attended full-day sitting in 35 court venues, covering each of the 24 districts in the District Court, between October 2018 and January 2019.
Its reporters saw a wide variation in the physical conditions of the courts, the facilities available to parties, the volumes of cases dealt with, and the manner in which lists were conducted.
Volume of cases
Certain courts dealt with a huge volume of cases, and this posed difficulties for both judges and parties.
In a court with just one sitting judge, there were 139 cases listed on one day alone, consisting of crime, general civil law, family law, and child care.
In another district, the judge could have over 120 cases listed on family-law days.
Nine of the 35 courts visited saw child care cases included in such general lists, alongside family, criminal, and other civil law cases.
Half of the courts – 17 venues – heard child care as part of a larger family law list, which could be very long and typically with lists of up to 60 or 70 cases.
In one court visited by the CCLRP, there were 126 family-law cases on the list. A minority of courts (nine) had regular days on which only child care cases were heard.
There are wide variations in how the lists are managed and how child care cases are dealt with. In some courts, child care cases are heard first, while they are interspersed throughout a longer list in others.
This means that families, social workers and lawyers must be present in the court for the entire day.
Physical conditions in the different courts also varied widely. In some courts, there were no ramps or lifts, so that access for children’s buggies was difficult.
Only a minority of courthouses have separate areas for dealing with family law cases, including adequate numbers of consulting rooms. Basic comforts, such as water-dispensers and snack-vending machines, are the exception rather than the rule. In some courts, the acoustics were poor.
Under the in camera rule, all family-law proceedings, including child care, must be confidential to the parties and their lawyers.
Yet, in many courts, privacy can be limited, with all litigants and witnesses milling around in large open areas outside the courtrooms, often discussing cases there with their lawyers.
A total of 292 child care cases were dealt with in the 35 courts attended – an average of 8.3 per day. Three-quarters of these were included in other lists alongside other cases.
Of the 292 cases, 156 (53.5 per cent) were extensions of interim care orders. A total of 46 (16 per cent) were reviews of care orders, while the other cases involved initial interim care orders, access matters, appointments of guardians ad litem, extensions of care orders, supervision orders, lifting the in camera rule, a child returning from Britain or requiring detention, and after-care plans. In all, 51 cases (17.5 per cent) were adjourned.
The District Court is served by 64 judges, 44 of whom are assigned to specific locations, while 20 are ‘moveable’ judges who can be called into any district to assist with lengthy or complex cases.
The cases attended by the CCLRP were generally heard by the sitting judge for the area, with just four courts presided over by visiting or moveable judges. However, the CCLRP attended on routine days, finding that, in a number of districts, a moveable judge was sought for full-care order hearings, or in cases that were expected to be contested or complex.
Dr Coulter commented: “It is clear from the review of all the districts that, in some of them, the courts are severely over-worked, which cannot but have an effect on how child care proceedings are dealt with.
“Most districts have only one judge to deal with sometimes enormous lists, which include criminal and civil matters, as well as large volumes of private family law.
“In a quarter of the courts we attended, child care was included in general lists, meaning that vulnerable families had to attend court along with those accused of crime. Even where child care is included in family law lists, there can be a danger of tense and aggressive scenes around the court, especially where there are allegations of domestic violence.