Written by Professor Judith Harwin of Lancaster University

In 2020 the Welsh government announced two years funding to set up the first pilot FDAC in Wales, acting on the recommendations of the Commission on Justice in Wales in the previous year[1]. The pilot will take place in South Wales, based on Cardiff court with the Vale of Glamorgan and Cardiff as the participating local authorities. It opens in autumn 2021. An evaluation will help answer a central question – can FDAC help reduce the number of looked after children in Wales?

FDAC is a problem-solving court that, unlike standard care proceedings, both treats and adjudicates[2]. The central goal is to help parents address their substance misuse and related difficulties so as to promote safe and sustainable family reunification. A multidisciplinary FDAC team provides intensive support to parents, links them into local services, and advises the court on parental progress in regular non-lawyer review hearings. In these hearings the judge and parents talk directly to one another and progress is reviewed with the FDAC team. The role of the judge is to help motivate parents while reminding them of their responsibilities and to problem solve. If parents cannot make changes within a timescale compatible with the child’s needs, the case reverts to standard proceedings and the child is placed in alternative care. If parents do not wish to take part in FDAC, their case is heard in standard proceedings.

The rationale for the Welsh pilot is strong. The Commission drew on the research evidence in England which shows that FDAC has higher rates of family reunification at the end of the care proceedings, compared to standard proceedings. Reunification is more likely to remain intact within three years of the court case and a higher proportion of mothers also remain free from substance misuse five years later[3]. In addition to better outcomes, FDAC saves money[4]. The potential for FDAC to help reduce the size of the care order child population was a main driver -higher than in England and in Northern Ireland. Wales makes less use of orders that result in family reunification than England while the rate of care proceedings and care orders for infants is also higher than in England[5]. As in England, no data is collected nationally on the contribution of parental substance misuse to these trends, but Welsh children are almost twice as likely to be looked after if a parent has an alcohol or drug problem[6].

All these are compelling reasons for trialling FDAC. So is the softer evidence. Parents and professionals are supportive of FDAC because of its compassionate approach combined with procedural fairness. Parents say that they are treated as ‘normal’ human beings and are offered hope that they can change. Professionals welcome FDAC’s non-adversarial, collaborative and transparent approach, and crucially, the research shows that it is a transferable model. Court observations in both established and new FDACs in England showed that the judiciary were implementing the principles and practices of problem-solving justice[7].

FDAC is not a panacea. It cannot overcome problems of deprivation, austerity and service decline but it can help motivate and support parents to change and become better problem solvers. It does so by using the court as a time limited agent of change rather than as a last resort and adopting a holistic and transparent approach to tackling the full range of parents’ problems. 

[1] https://gov.wales/commission-justice-wales-report

[2] https://justiceinnovation.org/areas-of-focus/family-drug-and-alcohol-courts

[3] https://academic.oup.com/lawfam/article/32/2/140/4962132

[4] Centre for Justice Innovation (2016) Better Courts: the financial impact of the Family Drug and Alcohol Court in London. 

[5] https://www.cfj-lancaster.org.uk/app/nuffield/files-module/local/documents/Born%20into%20care%20Wales%20-%20main%20report_English_final.pdf

[6] https://www.wcpp.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/190715-Analysis-of-Factors-Contributing-to-High-Rates-of-Care-REVISED.pdf

[7] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/car.2521.