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divert these cases into a priority list for assessing the grant of a legal aid certificate.

12.5The principle that delay may prejudice the welfare of a child1174 is bolstered by a provision in section 11 of the Children Act 1989 that the court is required to draw up a timetable when dealing with applications for orders under section 8.  This statutory provision reflects the psychological need of a child to have certainty and to have an early decision made in relation to residence and contact.  The Scottish Law Commission suggested that it was more appropriate to deal with the matter by rules of court.1175

12.6To promote the best interests of the child, priority must be given to the hearing of disputes concerning children, that is, residence, contact, specific issues, prohibited steps, child abduction, wardship and guardianship.  We recommend that, in the interim before legislation is enacted, target times be set for the disposal of custody, access and guardianship disputes.  We recommend a statutory provision on the lines of sections 1(2) and 11 of the Children Act 1989.1176

Social welfare officer’s report

12.7Section 3(1)(i)(B) of the Guardianship of Minors Ordinance (Cap 13) provides that the judge shall give due consideration to “any material information including any report of the Director of Social Welfare available to the court at the hearing”.  Clulow and Vincent emphasised the importance of children and parents knowing what is happening and the likely consequences of taking different courses of action so that they can make informed choices about the future.1177  To take account of this, it is important for delay to be avoided in the preparation of social investigation reports.

12.8The Child Custody Services Unit of the Social Welfare Department should be adequately staffed so that there is minimal delay in preparing reports.  This is particularly important because settlement is often delayed until the lawyers in the case have the opinion and recommendations of the report.

12.9Some concern was also expressed by practitioners on varying quality of reports furnished to the court.  Other countries, such as Australia, insisted on a minimum number of years of experience before a social worker could prepare investigation reports for the Family Court.

12.10We recommend that more resources need to be put into the Child Custody Services Unit to minimise delays in investigating and preparing reports for the court.  We also recommend a performance pledge that a report of the social welfare officer should be completed as expeditiously as possible, but

1174 Section 1(2) provides that “In any proceedings in which any question with respect to the upbringing of a child arises, the court shall have regard to the general principle that any delay in determining the question is likely to prejudice the welfare of the child”.

1175Scottish Law Commission, Report on Family Law (Scot Law Com 1992: No. 135) at 5.42.

1176 See Annex 1 infra.

1177 Clulow and Vincent, In the Child’s Best Interests? Divorce Court Welfare and the Search for a Settlement (1987) at 214.

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