The Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) must be a ‘vital component’ of the unified Family Court, the head of the Family Division said in a judgment highlighting the need for strict adherence to the time limit for resolving care cases.

The 26-week limit, which courts have been working towards, becomes mandatory next week under the Children and Families Act 2014.

Giving judgment in a ‘typical’ county court case that nevertheless raised ‘wider’ issues, Sir James Munby (pictured) said: ‘In no case can an extension beyond 26 weeks be authorised unless it is “necessary” to enable the court to resolve the proceedings “justly”.

‘Only the imperative demands of justice – fair process – or of the child’s welfare will suffice.’

Munby said exceptions can only be determined on a case-by-case basis, but in re: S (A child) he made ‘preliminary and necessarily tentative’ observations about three cases that would merit extension.

In the first category, he suggested, are cases where it is identified at the outset that they cannot be resolved within the time limit – including those involving complex medical evidence, FDAC-type cases, cases with an international element, and cases where parental disabilities require special assessments.

Cases where something ‘unexpectedly emerges’ to change the nature of the proceedings late in the day would also make an extension necessary. These might include allegations of sexual abuse; cases where the proposed carer dies, suffers a serious illness or is imprisoned; or where a realistic alternative family carer emerges.

The third category is those matters where ‘litigation failure’ by one or more of the parties makes it impossible to complete the case.

Munby highlighted the ‘crucially important’ FDAC approach, pioneered by district judge Nicholas Crichton at Wells Street in central London. The approach is based on problem-solving by specialist multi-disciplinary teams supporting parents to overcome the problems that have put their children at risk, with the aim of keeping families together.

He said: ‘The simple reality is that FDAC works. DJ Crichton has shown what can be achieved for children and their parents even in the most unpromising circumstances.

‘FDAC is, it must be, a vital component in the new Family Court.’

Munby stressed that assessments made in cases going through FDAC-style courts must make a ‘robust and realistic’ appraisal at the outset of what is possible within the child’s timescale, rather than being ‘driven by sentiment or a hope that “something may turn up”’.

The case in Bournemouth and Poole County Court concerned S, a child born in October 2013 for whom the local authority had been granted an emergency protection order followed by an interim care order.

S was the youngest of four children born to a woman with a history of street prostitution, drug addiction and mental illness. Her three older children had all been taken into care.

The mother had sought a six- to twelve-week residential assessment under section 38(6) of the Children Act 1989, which was opposed by the local authority, the guardian and S’s father.

By the time the case came before Munby in March, it had already been going for five months. The proposed residential assessment would have taken it well beyond six months.

Despite the improvement in the mother’s willingness to engage with support, he ruled there was ‘no adequate justification’ for an extension that would take resolution of the case ‘significantly beyond 26 weeks’.

‘Looking to the mother, there is, sadly, at present no solid, evidence-based, reason to believe that she will be able to make the necessary changes within S’s timescale,’ said Munby, adding that a further delay would have a ‘detrimental’ effect on S.

Read the full judgment.