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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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;
evidence of serious harm, active
involvement of Social Services;
mental health concerns in the parent
or child, especially an adolescent;
special needs indicated in the child;
learning difficulty or other disability
in either parent.
May I wish you good fortune with your enquiry.
Family Court Reported
9 April 2003