Potential special guardians put forward late in care proceedings should be realistic prospect and not merely the result of a 'trawl through all possible options', fresh guidance published by the judiciary has said.
The interim guidance, drafted by the Family Justice Council and approved by Sir Andrew McFarlane, addresses concerns about special guardianship orders raised by McFarlane's predecessor, Sir James Munby, in a Court of Appeal judgment last year.
The guidance explains when the statutory 26-week deadline for care proceedings can be extended.
A proposal to assess a late entrant to the proceedings must be 'realistic', the guidance says. Assessing 'viable' proposed carers who live in another country will justify an extension, as the Children and Families Across Borders may need time to assess the individuals.
More time may also be needed to assess the quality of the relationship between the child and proposed carers where the court has undertaken a welfare evaluation on the possible arrangements for the children but further time is required to ensure the placement is stable.
In the 2018 Court of Appeal judgment, In the matter of P-S (children), Munby said practical experience and anecdotal material identified two concerning issues. The first was the 'not infrequent' examples of cases in which a special guardianship order is proposed to place a child with a relative where the relationship may be tenuous or non-existent. The second was that the assessments relied on by the court in deciding whether or not to make an order 'are not always as rigorous as might be thought appropriate'.
The 26-week limit was introduced under the Children and Families Act 2014. However, official statistics for last year show that, on average, cases are taking longer than 26 weeks.
According to the Ministry of Justice, the average time for a care or supervision case to reach first disposal last year was 30 weeks, up two weeks from the year before. Only 49% of cases were completed within the statutory deadline last year - down eight percentage points compared to 2017.