A trailblazing family judge has described as ‘tyranny’ the government’s demand for rigid adherence to a 26-week time limit for care cases.
District Judge Nicholas Crichton, the driving force behind the award-winning Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) in London, told the Gazette that ‘process is taking over outcomes’. He warned: ‘We know parties who have successfully had their children returned home, but who would have had them adopted under the 26-week timetable – it’s as tough as that.’
The time limit is ‘at risk of becoming a tyranny’, Crichton (pictured) said. ‘I acknowledge the need to be quicker and more efficient, but the pendulum has swung too far.’
He urged solicitors to appeal decisions where judges have failed to recognise where significant harm will be done to families and children by strict adherence to the time limit.
Crichton also revealed that the drug and alcohol court faces an uncertain future, with its 2014 funding of £600,000 yet to be confirmed. It currently sits in the family court building in Wells Street, central London, which is due to close.
Crichton himself is due to retire at the end of the year after turning 70 last month. He has applied to be exempted from mandatory retirement so he can continue to sit one day a fortnight.
The Family Drug and Alcohol Court was set up in 2008 with funding from four government departments, including the Ministry of Justice and Department of Health. The court’s problem-solving approach aims to tackle parental substance misuse when it has been a key element in a local authority’s decision to bring care proceedings.
An evaluation carried out by Brunel University in 2010 showed its specialist approach resulted in more parents controlling their substance misuse and a higher rate of family reunification than other courts. A second report, due at the end of this year, is expected to echo the initial positive results.
Crichton told the Gazette: ‘We’re living hand to mouth, year by year – it is no way to carry on for a court that deals with such crucial matters.’
Chair of the Law Society’s family law committee Naomi Angell said: ‘I hope the case is sufficiently made out by the positive results from the court that its work will continue.’
Angell said the 26-week time limit did not have to be statutory, but it had helped to stop ‘drift’ in some cases.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson defended the 26-week limit saying: 'Excessive delays can have a damaging effect on already vulnerable children. We are changing the law to bring in a 26-week time limit for care proceedings so there is a much clearer focus on the child and their needs and cases don’t get caught up in unnecessary delay.
'The legislation will meet the need to tackle delay in all cases, while allowing sufficient judicial discretion to extend time where necessary to resolve cases justly.'