Local Authority

Challenges in child care proceedings

Over the past 12 months numerous new initiatives have been introduced to improve the performance of the family justice system and this will continue, for example, the introduction of the pilot PLO for care and supervision has enabled the courts to implement new court processes required to achieve the 26 week time limit for care proceedings. However, for a care or supervision order to be made there must be grounds to support a case that the child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm. Frequently drug or alcohol misuse complicates this assessment and this leads to considerable delays when; the wrong testing is used, results interpretation is inconclusive or misleading or when the testing occurs too late in the process.

FTS have introduced a service that improves efficiency in the family justice system where drug and alcohol misuse is involved and reduces delays in the process, consequently I would like to introduce FTS to you and your team to explain why the courts believe it is important we talk to you about the important contribution FTS make in child care proceedings.

Evidence for substance misuse is often flawed

There is considerable confusion and misunderstanding with regards to how drug and alcohol testing can be used to obtain reliable and relevant evidence for child care proceedings. This has been exacerbated recently due to the eagerness of testing laboratories to sell testing, resulting in it being oversimplified and inappropriately used. Pressure on budgets means solicitors and local authorities are demanding the cheapest tests, with serious consequences. Testing laboratories offer tests that are not fit for purpose or are forced to take shortcuts to reduce prices, compromising the value and reliability of the evidence. The complexity of obtaining reliable evidence from testing must not be underestimated and consequently it cannot be done “on the cheap”. Test results alone are meaningless unless the test profile is fit for purpose, they are in context with all influencing factors and each case is investigated thoroughly and interpreted by experts experienced in testing for care proceedings.Producing the evidence required represents a significant challenge to the experts in this field and understandably, is outside the skill and expertise of the LAA, courts, barristers, solicitors and social services. This issue was highlighted in a letter from Her Honour Judge Annabel Carr QC at the Sheffield Combined Court, distributed through the South Yorkshire LFJB:

“The costs to be incurred in the preparation of the testing and reports are wholly necessary i.e. the expertise required is outside the skill and expertise of the court and those already involved as witnesses by reference to the published and accepted research upon which they can rely and of which the court has knowledge”.
“Guidance on the use of testing is therefore crucial and in the best interests of the family justice system. Not engaging with experts for advice on the most appropriate testing may result in inappropriate or misleading evidence, which may lead to the gravest miscarriage of justice imaginable – the wrongful removal of children from their families”.

The consequences of the inappropriate use of testing is a major concern to FTS and the family justice system, with the resulting reports used in the court being frequently inconclusive, misleading, or worse, they come to the wrong conclusion. FTS are increasingly being instructed by the courts to resolve the resulting confusion, but the system would benefit from earlier intervention to ensure there are no avoidable miscarriages of justice and time and public funds are not wasted.

Don’t compromise on quality of evidence

When testing occurs in pre-proceedings there is considerable pressure to purchase the cheapest tests available, which is giving rise to serious deficiencies in the quality and reliability of the evidence produced. This has resulted in wasted time, a significant waste of public funds and more importantly the wrong decisions are being made.

FTS take a different approach

FTS don’t sell cheap tests. If testing and reports are considered to be wholly necessary by the local authority or the court, then the evidence produced must help to establish whether the misuse of drugs and/or alcohol could compromise the ability of a parent or guardian to provide a safe environment for a child. FTS offer a unique process to establish these facts, ensuring the correct tests, testing technology and comprehensive investigations are applied to every case, early in the process. The court report provides a clear, easy to understand and reliable conclusion so the right decisions can be made without any unnecessary delay or extra costs.

FTS are available during normal office hours to provide testing recommendations or general technical advice. FTS frequently provide support to solicitors prior to representation at court and if necessary whilst they are in attendance at the court and do not charge for this service. I would welcome the opportunity to meet with you and your colleagues to discuss how FTS can work with you and your team to assist in providing the best services for children affected within your jurisdiction. I look forward to hearing from you and to meeting up in the near future.

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