Originally published in The Solicitors Journal
The future of the Family Drug and Alcohol Court is far from certain due to a challenging economic climate and concerns among local stakeholders over whether the court provides value for money, an independent evaluation of the innovative court model has warned.
Launched in central London in 2008 by District Judge Nick Crichton, the specialist court, designed to support parents with overcoming addiction, was extended to Medway and Kent, Torbay, Exeter, Coventry, Plymouth, East Sussex, and West Yorkshire following a £2.5m funding boost from the Department for Education in 2015. The funding established the FDAC National Unit, which is responsible for nurturing new courts across the country.
The FDAC model received further support from the government last year, when the then justice secretary, Michael Gove, expressed enthusiasm for US-style problem-solving courts following his pledge to reform the UK’s prisons. FDAC has also received praise from the president of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, who sees the court model as ‘the only hope’ of reducing the number of care cases before the family courts.
Nevertheless, securing long-term funding to help local authorities set up new FDACs is now a priority for the national unit following an independent evaluation of the court. Commissioned by the government, the evaluation highlighted the positive impact made by the FDAC National Unit since its launch in April 2015, but warned of challenges ahead.
While participants spoke positively about the model, they also recognised the likely challenge of securing sufficient future funding due to the economic climate, as well as concern among local stakeholders about whether the court provides value for money relative to the outcomes achieved and running costs.
FDACs are funded by local authorities and receive no central government funding. Some courts set up in 2015/16 did receive DfE seed grant money, but this only accounted for half the therapeutic team’s cost for one year. The remaining funds had to be found from within local authority resources.
The evaluation’s participants also highlighted a need for the national unit to collect consistent and robust data to help evidence the model’s relative costs and benefits, and emphasised the ongoing role of the unit in securing financial commitment to the court model.
‘Working on the challenge of sustaining local FDAC sites is our priority,’ said Sophie Kershaw, co-director of the national unit. ‘We are aware how challenging it is for local authorities to fund FDACs and we are looking at alternative ways to secure long-term funding.’
Kershaw told Solicitors Journal the unit was working with local authorities on social impact bonds and considering how social investment can support a sustainable FDAC model. The unit is due to apply to the Life Chances Fund, which will contribute £80m to support locally developed projects. Some local authorities are also considering whether regional courts are a possibility.
Kershaw added that the unit was working hard with FDACs to consider where savings could be made and to help attract new partners such as public health bodies, local treatment centres, and police and crime commissioners.
The Centre for Justice Innovation has also been assisting the unit with its local sustainability work. The centre’s director, Phil Bowen, told the journal: ‘Undoubtedly, FDACs, and indeed children and family social work more generally, have to deliver effective services with fewer resources. In response, FDAC teams are already diversifying the range of work they do and seeking additional sources of funding.
‘At the same time, commissioners of FDAC need to consider that the evidence continues to build that FDAC works in delivering better outcomes, better justice, and better value for money than traditional court proceedings.’
Research from Lancaster University found that, compared to ordinary care proceedings, a significantly higher proportion of mothers stopped misusing drugs and alcohol and a greater number of families were reunited or continued to live together following the FDAC approach.
Financially, the model seems sound too. A review of the process, carried out in 2014 by Brunel University, found that the court saved thousands of pounds per case and cut the number of children taken into care. Meanwhile, the Centre for Justice Innovation found that while London’s FDAC caseload cost £560,000 in 2014/15, savings to public sector bodies over five years were estimated to top £1.29m.
Without new sources of funding, the positive contribution FDACs can make to society will be limited. This problem-solving model is worthwhile and, if given the chance to grow and develop, could make a fundamental difference to the justice system.