Legal opinion: We can do our bit to cut down drift in permanence planning
Jennifer McKearney, principal solicitor and permanence lead with Aberdeenshire’s legal and governance department, explains how they adopted PACE to help cut down delays within their legal systems.
When Aberdeenshire started PACE in 2014, the obvious thing to look at was our procedure for giving legal advice in respect of the child’s plan: It is one of the biggest areas of work for the solicitors in our team.
At the time, the procedure was that all the papers were sent to legal services five weeks before the Options Appraisal Looked-After Child Review: that’s where the child’s plan is considered. We immediately looked at the five-week period to see if there was anything we could improve there. The opinion was returned seven days before the review, so the process itself was adding four weeks of delay, and the social workers’ reports were already five weeks out of date before they got to the point of the meeting where key permanence decisions were made.
The paperwork includes the legal referral form, which is around seven pages long; the report and minutes of the last looked-after child review; the options appraisal document from the social worker; and on top of all of that, a parenting capacity assessment, contact assessment and possibly a sibling assessment. The period of reviewing all of this material is very intense, and on average it took one to two days of solicitor time to go through the papers and prepare the opinion.
Was time being wasted?
I decided to find out if there was wasted time where the reports were just sitting with legal services: did they really need to be with our team for the full four weeks?
Using a Plan Do Study Act cycle to test what could be done - you plan it, try it, observe the results and act on what is learned - I discussed with colleagues and social work staff how the time could be minimised.
It became apparent that four weeks was not needed to prepare a legal opinion: that using the full four weeks just boiled down to competing diary commitments. Often, when the papers landed with us, that was the timescale it took for us to find a solicitor with time to look at them.
We came up with a change idea where social workers working with a family would give us the heads up at least five weeks before the planned review so that we could set aside solicitor time to deal with the reports. They could then carry on working on their reports for at least three weeks and give us everything fourteen days before the review meeting. We would then, as before, return the paperwork seven days before the review. A final tweak of the process involved the solicitor getting the papers a few days earlier so that the opinion could be returned ten days before the review in order to give the social worker time to look at it before it is lodged along with all the other papers for the review.
The key change was social workers giving us that notice period of at least five weeks. In practice, I am encouraging social workers to contact us to book in the opinion when the review date is fixed. As a result, I am now getting calls saying that there’s a review in three or four months’ time, so it’s easy to find a solicitor who is available two weeks before that, and they can mark off their diary and set enough time aside.
The key is timescales, on both sides: social workers getting the work booked in and ensuring they have got the papers to us, and us making sure we have the time blocked out in the diary to deal with it.
Previously we had just worked the way we had always worked, and we said we needed the papers a month in advance to make sure we had enough time to get things done. What we had to do was question the assumption. It’s not really changed the work we do, it’s just more focused now.
Before, we could get that daunting stack of papers and know we had four weeks to deal with it, so it could be put off, but we have found that solicitors like the new way of working because having a deadline focuses them on the job.
Social workers also like being given a strict deadline, and they very much value being given an early point of contact: they know the lawyer who is going to be working with them in advance and they can be a bit more relaxed knowing they can pick up the phone and discuss issues informally.
The upshot of all this is that three weeks have been cut off the process. That might not seem a lot but if everyone involved does something similar it will have a major impact.
The other major benefit is that the reports should only be about two weeks out of date by the time the meeting takes place for the child’s plan. It has also helped build relationships with social workers so that they feel that we’re there for support, and ultimately it helps improve things for the children.
With a view to further strengthening working relationships, the legal team, who are based at the council headquarters, will be visiting social work offices and teams so they can get to know us and put names to faces, and that makes communications better. We are also developing some better general guidance and hints and tips for social workers over things such as parental rights and contact, giving them more training and guidance.
What we'll do next
The next area we want to look at is possible drift and delay in applications to sheriff courts for permanence orders. My initial research has shown that our court timescales weren’t as bad as we thought: the majority of cases were being resolved in about four months.
But, we have had a few issues recently so I’ve made up a table to look at what delays there are. If they are at our end, then we can do something about it; if it’s to do with the court process itself then the data will help with us talking to the sheriff courts and asking if there could be a different or quicker way of doing this.
Our motivation in all this is twofold: we are committed to delivering a first-class legal service, so that means taking a lead in the permanence process, and looking for ways to support our colleagues. It’s also down to a commitment to the ideas behind PACE: we all really want to get the best outcomes for the children we work with.
The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.
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