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Pilot Child Arrangements Programme: 2 years on


Following the success of the 2-year Child Arrangements Programme pilot scheme, the government has announced that it intends to extend the pilot in two further regions and roll-out nationwide later in the year.

In October 2022, we published an article detailing the new approach to private law children applications being trialled in two areas in the country, including Dorset.  Following the success of the pilot, the government announced on 26 January 2024 that it intends to extend the pilot to Birmingham in April and South-East Wales in June and nationwide by the end of the year.

Procedural recap

A full summary of the relevant procedure and applications affected by it can be found here. However, in summary, the pilot sought to reduce the duration of private children proceedings, including reducing the number of hearings within proceedings in appropriate cases and directing more early intervention for the parties in the proceedings. Examples of such interventions include non-Court-based support with substance abuse or domestic violence, as well as alternative dispute resolution including mediation. It was hoped this would relieve the substantial burden on the Court system to improve services and reduce the length of litigation, ensuring a quicker resolution for children and families.

How has the Child Arrangements Programme succeeded?

Currently, the Family Justice Board report that children proceedings subject to the pilot procedure are taking an average of 25.3 weeks to resolve. When compared to cases subject to the previous procedure, with an average length of 43 weeks, this is a 40% reduction in the length of proceedings. The upshot of this is a significant acceleration of the resolution of children proceedings providing for faster certainty for parents/carers and the children of such applications before the Court who are otherwise in limbo for longer whilst waiting for decisions as to how much time they will spend with their parents or whether they can change schools or relocate, for example. For parents trying to reinstate their time with their children, these weeks represent precious time that may have been lost under the standard procedure.

There will remain cases where the level of risk to a child is too great or the issues too complicated to ensure a swift resolution, but the new procedure enables more flexibility and tailoring of the process to each individual case rather than the presumption of a ‘one size fits all’ approach to all families. The procedure therefore helps ensure families do not experience unnecessary delay which in turn likely reduces the incurrence of an element of legal fees.

The government reports that the model has also improved the experience for victims of domestic abuse by enhancing information sharing through agencies. This reduces the need for victims to retell traumatic experiences and provides Judges with more relevant documentation before a hearing is listed.

What do our lawyers say?

Observations from the our Family Team are that Judges are taking a far more proactive approach to resolving matters with parents at the earliest stage possible. The stringent hearing format of the standard current procedure sometimes stifles Courts from resolving matters prior to a final hearing. However, with the assistance of early recommendations from CAFCASS (the body that assists the Court in assessing the children’s needs, wishes and feelings within proceedings) via the new style Child Impact Report, and the provision of more flexibility in the Court’s case management powers and decision making, cases are being managed through to conclusion more efficiently and decisively where it is safe and appropriate to do so.

This is particularly helpful for our separating clients, operating in the context of a myriad of fast-moving changes, such as selling homes, changing schools, moving between geographic locations or adjusting to a new financial position. When juggling all changes such as these alongside co-parenting and the requirements of the law in relation to all aspects of parental responsibility, quicker decisions are invaluable to settling children into a new routine at the earliest opportunity and with the intention of reducing, or at least resolving, conflict between parents.

The substantial burden on the Court system remains more evident in other parts of the country not yet subject to the “Pathfinder” pilot, where we still experience hearings being ineffective on the day owing to a lack of Judges to assist or where listings between the various conventional hearing stages are months apart. Our experience of the new procedure is positive with encouraging signs of engagement by parties and the Court with the subject matter and with a noticeable move away from the comparative constrictions of the existing standard procedure. The expansion of the procedure to other areas of the country is therefore welcomed.

What other changes may be on the horizon?

The government’s announcement on 26 January 2024 included the decision not to make attendance at mediation or a parenting programme mandatory, before a party can issue proceedings.

Instead, the government intends to fund a pilot to provide parents with legal advice about dispute resolution options, such as mediation. The voice of the child will also be more readily facilitated by permitting mediators to obtain enhanced DBS checks, making it easier for them to speak to children at the heart of disputes. Steele Raymond already champions mediation and child inclusive mediation as a mechanism for resolving disputes and difficulties between parents, carers or family members. You can read more from my colleague, Michelle Bettell, about the process of child inclusive mediation here.

The Steele Raymond Family Team therefore supports the government’s approach to the matter on the basis that we recognise that, although we already strongly encourage attendance at mediation in appropriate cases to provide parents with more autonomy to make decisions together for their children, one size does not fit all. It is paramount for each family’s unique circumstances and dynamic to be fully assessed, understood and recognised in the context of why legal advice has been sought in the first instance before, if necessary, invoking the legal powers that are enshrined in the relevant provisions of the Children Act and which the “Pathfinder” process acts as a vehicle for achieving a solution that is an enhanced and more proactive vehicle than before.

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