What are family drug and alcohol courts?


Family drug and alcohol courts (FDACs) are civil problem-solving courts which work with families where children are at risk of being removed due to parental substance misuse. They offer parents the support they need to overcome their addiction and prove that they are able to care for their children.


Each month more than 1000 cases are brought to remove children from their families in England, and substance misuse plays a part in at least a third. However, we know that children taken into the care system can face many difficulties, including lower educational achievement and greater risk of ending up in prison.  


FDACs work to create safe, stable homes for children at risk of being removed by helping parents address the issues which are preventing them from caring for the children. Families in FDAC are supported by a multidisciplinary team which co-ordinates a tailored package of support which can include drug treatment, counselling, parenting classes and domestic violence interventions. Their cases are managed by a dedicated judge who meets with parents regularly for open and frank discussions of their progress.


Evidence has shown that, compared to normal proceedings, FDAC families are more likely to see parents stop their substance abuse and be re-united with their children, and are less likely to experience neglect and abuse in the future.


The Centre for Justice Innovation is a partner in the FDAC National Unit which seeks to expand and support the provision of Family Drug and Alcohol Courts in England and Wales


How do family drug and alcohol courts work?

FDACs are a form of problem-solving court. Problem-solving courts, which originate in the criminal justice system, use the authority of the court to motivate people to access help such as drug treatment which addresses the issues underpinning their case.

Families are referred into FDAC at the start of care proceedings where the local authority who is applying to remove the children sees that the case is relevant.

FDACs have three key differences from standard family courts:


  • Dedicated judges: An FDAC case is presided over by a single judge who will sit at every hearing. FDAC judges receive additional training in substance misuse and motivational interviewing to help them understand and engage with families.
  • Specialist support team: FDAC families are supported by a multi-disciplinary team which co-ordinates a multi-agency intervention plan and offers direct support. The FDAC team monitors the progress of the plan and reports back to the judge.
  • Problem-solving court process. FDAC cases are managed via fortnightly non-lawyer review hearings which are attended by parents, CAFCASS guardians and social workers. Members of the FDAC team are present report back on families’ progress and the results of drug tests. These hearings help the court manage the legal process, but also offer an opportunity for the judge to offer families advice, encouragement, and guidance.


The evidence on Family Drug and Alcohol Courts

Brunel University has published two evaluations of the London FDAC, one in 2011 and a second in 2014. The most recent evaluation, found evidence that parents going through the FDAC were more likely to be abstinent from drugs and alcohol and be reunited with their children at the end of proceedings. They were also less likely to return to court as a result of further abuse and neglect, or to experience substance misuse relapse.

A report from the Centre for Justice Innovation on the value for money of the FDAC shows that in 2014/2-15, London FDAC cost £560,000 and produced a net savings of £1.25 million to public sector bodies over five years. Principal sources of savings included a reduction in the cost of processing cases, a reduction in the number of children in the care system, and long-term reductions in costs associated with drug misuse. We estimate that the savings generated by processing a case through the FDAC exceed the upfront costs within two years of a case entering the programme.