THE family court in Swindon is guilty of ‘shocking delays’ in care cases that cause misery to children and parents, new figures revealed yesterday.

It takes 16 months to reach decisions on the custody of youngsters following relationship breakdowns, or in cases where youngsters may be removed to protect them from abuse or neglect.

The average delay – of 68 weeks – is longer than both the national average of 55 weeks and the 60 weeks that care proceedings drag on for in North and West Wiltshire.

Worse, it is more than twice the deadline of 26 weeks recommended in a damning review of the family courts carried out last year for the government.

That study, by former senior civil servant David Norgrove, condemned the justice on offer as slow and incoherent, describing waits of more than one year as shocking delays.

The call for a 26-week limit in care cases was immediately accepted by the Ministry of Justice, after the report warned that lengthy proceedings were damaging the ‘chance of a permanent home’.

Mr Norgrove’s study said: “The longer proceedings last, the less likely it is that a child will find a secure and stable placement, particularly through adoption.

“They can damage a child’s development. They may put maltreated and neglected children at risk. If children remain in the home during proceedings, they may be exposed to more harmful parenting with long-term consequences.

“Long proceedings can cause already damaged children distress and anxiety.

“Children live with uncertainty, while possibly experiencing multiple placements, continuous assessment and distressing contact arrangements.”

The performance of Swindon’s court was better than the very worst in the country, which were Rhyl (87 weeks), Guildford (81), Luton (81), Taunton (80) and West Lincolnshire (80).

But some court are able to complete care cases within the 26-week timeframe, including West Cumbria (13), North Somerset (13), Cornwall (16), Grimsby and Cleethorpes (20) and Sussex (23).

Mr Norgrove’s review highlighted the lack of ‘leadership or accountability’ in the family courts, undermined by distrust between organisations, a lack of joint working by agencies, low morale and inadequate IT systems.

The MoJ immediately pledged to publish the first ever court-by-court performance figures to highlight areas where delays were “unacceptable”.

However, although it vowed to implement radical reform – including the 26-week limit – it has yet to say how such dramatic improvement will be achieved.

Critics have warned a £2bn cut to the MoJ budget by 2015 – including swingeing reductions to legal aid – threatens the reform programme.

Ministers did pledge to boost funding for mediation for separating couples by two thirds, to £25m a year, to cut the number of cases reaching the courtroom.