Select Committee on Lord Chancellor's Department Written Evidence

Written evidence submitted by Barry Meteyard, Family Court Reporter (CAF 59)

  In reviewing the performance of CAFCASS, I hope your committee will appreciate some comments from a Family Court Reporter. The perspectives of management and NAPO are fair enough but need to be viewed in the context of the operation as a whole of the Children and Family Courts. The latter necessarily respond to social changes in the lives of children characterised by, among other things:

    —  steadily increasing rates of divorce and unmarried parental separation;

    —  serial parental relationships;

    —  fragmented paternal relationships;

    —  diverse norms in ethnic communities and cross-national relationships; and

    —  correct concerns about child protection, domestic violence and the effects on children of social pathology such as alcohol and drug abuse.

  The careful assessments and advice required by Courts depend upon active cooperation from other agencies involved with children.

  The difficulties encountered in establishing CAFCASS could have been forseen. The amalgamation of the three services was the subject of a study by Bristol University at the time of the 1989 Children Act: this recommended a unified service located within Social Services Departments but seems to have been ignored.

  The impetus for creating CAFCASS was widely understood to be financial, to curtail the escalating costs of the Guardian ad Litem service. This, and the ponderous slowness through the Courts, remain to be tackled in a properly managed service.

  The Project Team was not the effective Project Management exercise required to meet the Government deadlines. Decisions were delayed until the appointment of a Chief Executive. As a result, her initial plan was over-ambitious and too ruthlessly pursued.

  The new contract seems to be attractive to practitioners but the emphasis on management and organisation risks distorting service delivery. My own view is that the only manager a practitioner actually requires is a dedicated secretary/office manager to manage the case connections between parents, solicitors, Courts, agencies contributing to reports and those assembling the reports. Computers cannot replace the intimate knowledge acquired by a competent secretary or office manager. The tendency towards fewer CAFCASS site offices means the service may not be local for families or associated with the location of Family Courts or even where the demand is. Torquay, for example, is apparently fifth in the country for divorce rates but is about to close its local office and merge with the Exeter office.

  Lastly, at the risk of "too much information", to dynamise the system in which Family Court Advisors operate, I include suggestions I made to local Courts last year in response to an initiative by the Head of Legal Services CAFCASS HQ. who asked for contributions to a piece of work he was leading on ways in which Judges could help CAFCASS provide a better service. This may have been made available to you already of course.

  You may be aware that a protocol with local Courts for prioritising the allocation of cases where backlogs exist was recommended in the MCSI Inspection Report, Starting Up, published in June 2002.

  Suggestions offered in private law cases by CAFCASS staff include:

  1.  At First Directions, all parties to be seen by the CAFCASS officer who can then help indicate the scope and focus of the report.

  2.  The threshold for requiring a Report could be elucidated. Can applications/cases be progressed in the Court without welfare reports, for example where there exist statements, expert opinions etc, or the issue can be decided on evidence presented and the principles of the Children Act.

  3.  A major reason for requiring a CAFCASS report should be the ascertaining of the children' s wishes and feelings where parents dispute these.

  4.  The focus and scope of a report could be specified more clearly in the Order. Reports could then be limited, briefer but perhaps in greater depth on identified issues. There are good examples of this but many Orders are simply stated to be on Residence or Contact with no other information to guide the reporter. Thus reports tend to be general assessments of the whole family situation.

  5.  Addendum reports especially need this focus. As these are often made in Court in the absence of the reporter, the subsequent Order for an addendum does not indicate why the need for an addendum has arisen and what it is to address. Officers complain of having to repeat the ground of the main report or deal with minor matters arising from one party' s dissatisfaction. These matters could have been addressed in a Hearing by cross-examination.

  6.  Officers value decisiveness by the Court. Although many cases are finely balanced, many are not. Officers express concern that where a clear assessment and recommendation is made, there sometimes appears to be reluctance to make a judgement or decision in a case. This contributes to requests for addenda, expert reports, independent social worker or other reports, and consequent delay. This is exacerbated by seeking reviews reports in 3-6-12 months time rather than allowing parties to (re)apply if arrangements alter or do not work out as envisaged, given the difficulties in allocating reports.

  7.  Further applications by parties where decisions have been made are entertained too easily rather than requiring real evidence of changes affecting the children, ie the parental dispute is allowed to continue in the Court.

  8.  Officers should only be Ordered to attend Hearings after the report is lodged and not when the Report is Ordered. When they are Ordered to attend, the report having been lodged and considered by the parties and their legal representatives, it would greatly help officers if the reasons for their attendance was given and the questions raised by parties or solicitors notified to the officer who can prepare accordingly their oral evidence for the Hearing.

  9.  Where officers are required to attend Hearings, Courts could commence the case on time (l0.30am) and then rise to allow for negotiation if an agreement is possible. Officers can spend considerable time waiting in Court: Hearings normally now call the CAFCASS officer first after commencement. The suggestion is to commence with the Officer then rise to allow negotiation if agreement seems possible, with the active assistance of the officer if necessary. Officers do participate in door-of the Court negotiations but these are unpredictable and often seem only to delay the commencement of the Hearing. As a result, Officers cannot risk making appointments for later in the day when Hearings are scheduled as they cannot predict being free after lunch, for example.

  10.  Requests for expedited reports are taken seriously but should be followed by expedited Hearings. To have these scheduled several months after the report is lodged seems illogical.

  11.  Court administration could improve. Orders for reports sometimes take two weeks to arrive at CAFCASS offices. Similarly, copy Orders and other papers may only refer to the child' s name and not the Parties/case names; where the child' s name is different to the parents' this does not match CAFCASS filing systems which list applicants first, we have to rely on the memory of the administrator to correctly file papers. Officers attending Directions Hearings still do not get as a matter of course the List or copies of all papers on it.

  12.  These are suggestions arising from the experiences of officers. Apart from requests for expedited reports, there are fewer suggestions about priority as so many cases seem to have similar indicators of alleged abuse, domestic violence, alcohol/substance misuse and so forth, although these may only emerge during an investigation, not being evident in the Application or the Response to it. Generally, officers welcome indication from the court that a referral be given priority. Apart from the interview with the Officer at First Directions where such issues may become clear, is there a way for Courts to seek such information so it can be available to the Officer and Judge at the First Directions Hearing?

  13.  So far as prioritising allocation of a report is concerned, therefore, this could be set at First Directions if the CAFCASS duty officer can see all parties where reports are indicated. The criteria might be, for example:

    —  ages of (young) children;

    —  risks of abduction;

    —  evidence of serious harm, active involvement of Social Services;

    —  emigration of parent;

    —  mental health concerns in the parent or child, especially an adolescent;

    —  special needs indicated in the child; and

    —  learning difficulty or other disability in either parent.

  May I wish you good fortune with your enquiry.

Barry Meteyard

Family Court Reported

9 April 2003

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