The PLO: How can Practitioners help?

Emma Templar
Written by:

Emma Templar


By now, anyone who works in Family Law is aware of the impact Covid 19 and the increase in applications had on the Public Law Outline (PLO).  As a result, in January 2023, the President of the Family Division relaunched the PLO with the main aim of reducing delay and bringing cases back within the statutory time limit of 26 weeks. 

Whilst it may seem unrealistic for the majority of cases at present, the time frame has been met before and with that in that mind, Mrs Justice Lieven, the Family Division Liaison Judge for the Midland Circuit, recently spoke to the Midland Family Law Bar to share some practical advice on what practitioners can do to try and achieve it. What follows, with her permission, is a summary of her advice.

Put simply, there are two key points that practitioners must have in mind:-

1.       Compliance with Court Orders

2.       Keep cases shorter and more focused

What is there to help us?

Court Initiatives – Timelines
Every court, Local Authority and Cafcass has or will have agreed a timeline for standard cases – for Initial Viability Assessments, Connected Persons Assessments, Local Authority decision making, Agency Decision Making, Fostering Panels and Cafcass reports. It is important to find out what the timelines are locally and ensure they are replicated in draft orders.

Where an order for Police, NHS or other agency disclosure is not complied with, an application should be made to enforce it sooner rather than later.  It is crucial that it is not left to drift as this will clearly affect the timeline.  Judges are being encouraged to get tough to deal with this in order to keep to the timeline and costs orders will made against them.

Nomination of Alternative Carers
Parents need to nominate alternative carers early.  If acting for a parent, it is important to actively encourage that conversation as soon as possible so that the timeline can be met.

Role of the Children’s representative 
The Guardian has a key role as an overseer of compliance and should alert the court if an order is not complied with.  Where deadlines have been missed, if the parties are able to agree a re-timetabling (within the timetabling window), the draft order can be sent to the Court for approval. Where possible, parties must try to avoid coming back for another hearing.

Court hearings
The Bench understands that practitioners are working hard and juggling diaries is a tricky issue to manage however:

Position Statements/Case Summaries should focus on the issues for the relevant hearing and should be filed with the Court by 4pm the day before the hearing.

Witness Templates must be properly completed and adhered to.

There should be continuity of Counsel between the Issues Resolution Hearing and the final hearing, not least to help keep to the witness template and keep the timetabling on track.

Consider whether an assessment is relevant and really necessary to the issues in the case.

Issues Resolution Hearing
An IRH can be extremely successful if properly used. But to get the most out of this, the Advocates meetings should, ideally, take place 48 hrs before the hearing to allow parties to narrow/agree the issues, complete the witness template and have sufficient time to put in position statements before the hearing.

It was interesting to hear a view from the Bench on cross-examination with a few useful reminders:-

Focus on the key and relevant issues.

Judgment issues can be put in a closing speech.

Ask short, focused questions.

Be realistic, be respectful and be humane especially towards parents.

Use and watch the Judge for guidance and use them to your favour.

Less is always more.

Family Public Law Digital Service (FPL)
This is the way forward.  Whilst it’s not without its problems, it is a fantastic tool. Please register and use it.

It may seem like we have a mountain to climb but the aim is that, if everyone remains focused and works together in trying to put the above into practice so that less hearings are needed and ‘every hearing counts’, cases will be dealt with more efficiently and more effectively within the statutory timeframe and this can only be beneficial across the board.

Written by Emma Templar