On 2 February 2023, I attended the Family Court in Cardiff, aiming to report on cases under the newly launched Reporting Pilot. I identified one case on the court list which I was able both to attend and report. It turned out to be a hearing in the FDAC – the Family Drug and Alcohol Court. One matter of public interest I noted in this case were the considerable efforts the judge and the social worker had gone to, to support this mother and baby.
FDACs – Family Drug and Alcohol Courts
Family Drug and Alcohol Courts are specialist courts that run very differently from the ‘normal’ family courts. They come in slightly different shapes and sizes over the country because they depend on the energy of individual judges and professionals and substantial funding from local authorities to set them up and keep them going, and each area may adjust the FDAC model to suit. But in general, each FDAC will have a multi-disciplinary team of social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and drug workers who, together with the FDAC judge, support the parent to make and sustain change so that they can keep or recover care of their baby. The FDAC involves a single judge who, with the FDAC team, works closely with each parent as they go through the FDAC process, in a way which is quite different to the usual judicial role of making decisions about facts and resolving disputes by making orders.
The judge and FDAC team come together every couple of weeks for ‘non-lawyer review’ meetings rather than formal hearings, to look at the parents’ progress and the bumps along the way. FDACs have a high success rate compared to standard care proceedings, so although they are expensive, they are generally considered to be cost effective. Although the parents on the FDAC programme have usually been offered a place because they are thought to have a reasonable chance of making change, in a few cases the parent won’t be able to make good use of the support or to sustain change. If that becomes apparent, the case will usually come out of FDAC and be fast tracked to a final decision, which may mean the child lives permanently away from his or her parents, perhaps even away from their entire family through adoption.
The hearing in Cardiff
This hearing had been listed so that Her Honour Judge Sian Parry could hand down a judgment regarding an apparent relapse to substance use by the mother of the baby. This relapse had been disputed by the mother, and so the judge had held a hearing and listened to the mother’s evidence to decide where the truth lay. She had concluded that the mother had relapsed. At this hearing the judge delivered her findings and reasons for them and moved on to make arrangements for the court to make final welfare decisions (i.e. what should happen to the baby) at a future date.
At the start of the hearing, the judge indicated that she would make a transparency order that prohibited reporting until the end of the case, but following representations from me and another journalist attending the hearing, she agreed that we could report the above outline of the hearing along with some other matters observed / referenced during the hearing which I had identified I would like to be able to include in this post.
The hearing was a little difficult to follow for a number of reasons. Firstly, I had no real information about it until the hearing began (and no paperwork) and the case was half way through – I had to listen to the judgment being delivered from a standing start. Secondly, none of the advocates was very easy to hear, and the representative for the guardian was very softly spoken indeed. The journalist and I sat at the back of court two rows behind the lawyers and one row behind the mother and the social worker. This also meant that, apart from the judge, it was difficult to interpret body language cues and in particular facial expressions. Thirdly, there were no formal introductions because the case was ‘part heard’ and the judge and those in court were already familiar with one another. In the Court of Protection I gather, the bar are more used to summarising the issues and who everyone is for the benefit of observers, but that is not yet an established practice in the Family Court.
The mother was accompanied by someone who I took either to be her solicitor or a representative from that firm, or possibly a support worker or intermediary. Nonetheless, I managed to pick up more or less what was going on, using my experience as an advocate in this type of case. The hearing may have been somewhat less easy to follow for the reporter sitting beside me.
Although it was clear that our attendance as reporters caused a little initial anxiety on the part of the mother and to an extent the lawyers (who had not yet been encountered the new pilot), there was no hostility, and the judge was confident and clear in explaining the purpose and terms of the pilot, and that any reporting would be anonymised – and she agreed to my request to make representations at the end about the fine detail of the transparency order, so that the hearing could move on to the main business.
The first phase of the hearing was the delivery of the judgment, which the judge read from her notes. As the judge read out her judgment and discussed matters with the lawyers, the mother made it clear which parts of what the judge was saying she disagreed with by shaking her head quite noticeably.
Up until the point of the fact-finding hearing that I heard the conclusion to, the dynamic in the courtroom and between the mother and judge would presumably have been quite different. As a result of the case having to be diverted down a more traditional ‘fact finding route’, and in light of those findings, the local authority will have to consider whether or not the child can be returned to the mother, and (depending on what other options there are for the baby’s care), whether the child should be placed for adoption. The judge herself now assumes a more traditional judicial role.
Once the judgment had been delivered the judge again switched mode, turning from arbiter of fact to case manager. HHJ Parry applied some focused scrutiny to the various proposals for timetabling and time estimates, wanting the advocates and parties to focus on whether each witness or piece of evidence was really relevant or helpful. The judge worked quite hard to ensure that there was as little delay as possible, against what appeared to be quite a challenging listing situation. The judge was hopeful that the case could be brought back by the end of March.
Reporting on this case
Following the hearing, the judge left the lawyers and journalists to liaise with us to adjust the transparency order in the terms she had ultimately agreed, and I was able to assist with the drafting by pointing out some corrections and suggesting a form of words to capture the adjustments. The process was collaborative and congenial, probably helped by the fact that one of the lawyers knows me professionally and (hopefully) was therefore more relaxed than he might have been if I were a complete stranger. The social worker who had remained in the courtroom while we sorted things expressed interest in the pilot and offered to send me a powerpoint explaining how the FDAC in Cardiff works. She was clearly enthusiastic about the project (as FDAC workers often are in my experience). The powerpoint arrived in my inbox shortly after the hearing.
At the hearing I attended I heard that the social worker had been a ‘cheerleader’ for the mother during the earlier stage of the proceedings, and had gone out of her way to support her by supervising a Christmas contact event though she was scheduled to be on leave. The judge observed that in evidence the social worker had been ‘palpably disappointed’ at the mother’s apparent relapse.
I suspect that adjusting to the change in dynamic that comes with a change from FDAC to traditional care proceedings mode after such close working will have been uncomfortable (albeit in different ways), for each of the mother, the social worker and the judge.
The judge called the advocates and reporters back in briefly to ensure the terms of the transparency order were finalised, by which point the court was told the mother now had no objections and that she ‘understands about transparency’. It was agreed that the amendments (which are what made this short post possible) would not prejudice the ongoing case.
I sought those amendments because in my experience it is far more common for reports about the family court to highlight criticism of a social worker than to highlight their commitment and dedication, as appeared to be the case here. There is a perception that social workers are only ever out to ‘get the baby’, but in this case at least, the social worker appears to have gone out of her way to support the mother in recovery so that the child could grow up in her care.
Pressure of work has meant that it has taken me over a month to get this post written up, which was not my intention. However, I’ve not seen the case reported by the other journalist / the paper he represented, and I think it’s important that as far as is possible what I observed is ‘out there’, whatever its complexion. Sadly, I don’t think I will be able to attend the final hearing and find out what happens to the mother and baby in this case, so this post will remain a snapshot rather than part of a concluded narrative. I hope however, that even as a snapshot, this post offers something of interest that might not have seen the light of day without the pilot.
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