Exploring the impact of pre-proceedings meetings in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust

  • Oisin Martin

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Introduced in Northern Ireland in 2009, The Guide to Case Management in Public Law Proceedings, (DHSS, 2009) provided an operational framework for stakeholders working within, and on the margins, of the public law forum. The Guide introduced an operational scaffolding, intended to address the issue of delay in the carriage of public law applications by focusing upon core areas of concern and assessment activity carried out in the pre-proceedings period.

This study presents findings of a mixed methods approach to exploring the impact of pre-proceedings meetings in one of Northern Ireland’s Health and Social Care Trusts. The aim of this study was to develop an understanding of the broad range of factors underpinning social work activity in the pre-proceedings forum, the biographical contexts within which families are engaged in pre-proceedings interventions and the extent to which pre-proceedings meetings were delivering upon their intended aim of obviating the requirement for proceedings and curtailing the duration of public law applications.

Retrospective case file analysis was carried out to determine the socio-biographical features and case management trajectories of 30 families who had been invited to attend pre-proceedings meetings between April 2014 and April 2015. This quantitative appraisal of operational activity was complimented by a series of 16 semi-structured interviews involving social work practitioners.

The nascent awareness of multiplicity as a trope for contextualising social disadvantage and childhood adversity, (Valentine 2016) is glimpsed in the findings. A picture emerges of pre-proceedings meetings being enacted in response to emerging crises and as an aide to engaging with highly resistant family, (Fauth et al., 2010) as opposed to being employed in a systematic and consistent manner. As a consequence those children considered at pre-proceedings meetings had frequently been exposed to multiple sources of adversity, punctuated by episodes of social work intervention over sustained periods of time.

Whilst pre-proceedings meeting were associated with 60% of cases being deflected from an application in public law, the findings presented in this study re-visit concerns as to the impact arising from pre-proceedings interventions upon those cases proceeding to court. Each of the cases proceeding to court, (27%) subsequently relied upon the appointment of independent expert witness, with lengthy administrative delay continuing to be in evidence across this sub-sample.

The significance of relationship-based models of engagement with families as representing a partial antidote to the corrosive, trans-generational and worsening impact of poverty, deprivation and social marginalisation is recognised by research participants. A concern emerges however in respect of the compressed window of opportunity situated within the pre-proceedings process for professionals to support significant change with families. Participants expressed concern as to the operational and resource climate underpinning pre-proceedings practice and the calibre of family justice secured within the pre-proceedings forum. In addition to core resource deficits in the realms of mental health, domestic violence and substance misuse, the findings point toward the impact of sustained under investment in social inequality and a lack of associated policy development and training in support of work carried out on the Edge of Care.

Recent policy developments piloted in the jurisdiction of England and Wales are considered within the context of a renewed emphasis upon the significance of the pre-proceedings period, (Beckett et al., 2014; Rothera and Ryan, 2014). Whilst the carriage of public law applications in Northern Ireland has received recent scrutiny through the Care Proceedings Pilot, (DOJ, 2017) this study points toward a need to consider a more expansive construction of the pre-proceedings process in line with developments in England and Wales.
Date of AwardDec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorDavy Hayes (Supervisor) & Karen Winter (Supervisor)


  • Delay
  • social work
  • risk
  • anxiety
  • pre-proceedings

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