Cafcass's response to increased demand for its services - Public Accounts Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 96-99)

Witnesses: Rt. Hon Sir Nicholas Wall, President, Family Division, and Head of Family Justice, and Sir Mark Hedley, High Court Judge (Family Division) gave evidence.

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Q96 Chair: I welcome you both, Sir Nicholas and Sir Mark, and thank you very much for attending our hearing this morning. I know you felt some reluctance to do so, but, from our point of view, having had a session with both Cafcass themselves and their sponsor Department, the Department for Education, we simply thought it would be helpful, in coming to some helpful conclusions, if we heard a little from you as the customer of Cafcass. We are immensely grateful for you to agreeing to attend.

Can I also say thank you to you, Sir Nicholas, for sending the letter, particularly the one of 7 October, which gives us a basis on which to take the questioning? To start, in that letter you remind us quite properly that care proceedings are instituted by local authorities. You say there are variations in the performance of local authorities, which impact on whether backlogs have been eliminated. Would it be possible for you to expand on that observation? Why is the performance different in local authorities? What are you actually referring to? Is it that different standards are applied in terms of where they decide to take care proceedings? Do the children's department, the social workers, work in a different way? How does that impact on the contribution that Cafcass then has to make to your consideration of individual cases in the courts?

Sir Nicholas Wall: Under the public law protocol, you will appreciate that the local authority is obliged to undertake pre­action work with the family. There is a pre­protocol procedure, which means that the local authority should not only work with but assess the family. One of the problems has been that there have been differences in local authority assessments. If a local authority does its work efficiently and well, one tends to find--I am sure Mark would agree--that the guardian accepts the work done by the local authority, and the case can proceed relatively smoothly. If, on the other hand, the local authority hasn't done a full assessment, the judge who is charged with the duty of not only finding the threshold criteria satisfied but also deciding whether or not it is in the best interests of the child--whether the care plan is appropriate--can't make a care order and can't proceed. Therefore, there is a delay while sometimes a judge feels that he or she has to have a second assessment, or alternatively Cafcass feels it has to investigate the care work that has been done by the local authority in much greater detail. There is a consequential delay. One does tend to find that some local authorities that do excellent pre­protocol work produce excellent assessments and cases proceed smoothly; if they do not, there is a delay.


Q97 Chair: Would you like to add anything particularly? We know London is particularly different.

Sir Mark Hedley: Different authorities have radically different demands made of them, depending on the social setting in which they are operating. You would expect one of the Royal Boroughs to produce something rather more polished than, say, Southwark or Lambeth, which operate under huge pressures in terms of the demands made of them. That is not to say that they do it badly, but there are radically different demands made on different authorities. I know from my experience of being liaison judge in Wales, as well, that you have problems in Blaenau Gwent, for example, which you most certainly don't have in, say, Pembrokeshire, simply because the demands are quite different. We have to live with the fact that there are very different demands. Different social services have recruitment and retention problems, which others do not have. They are often linked to the kinds of demands that are made. Those kinds of issues bubbling around in the background have an obvious impact on what local authorities can and cannot achieve.

Q98 Chair: In effect, if all local authorities performed at the level of the best, even having regard to the different demands, the ability of Cafcass to respond to the needs of the court would be far easier.

Sir Nicholas Wall: Yes, I think that is right. One of the things I have said to Government in correspondence is anything the Government can do to improve the lot of the social worker, and to raise the profile of the social work profession, would be greatly welcomed by the judiciary, because we are dependent on social workers for the competence of the work they do. If the work is not well done or if the work, because of the pressures that Mark has indicated, is poorly done, there is inevitably a delay, as the process presently stands, because the judge will say, "I am very sorry. I don't like your care plan. I am not impressed with your care plan. I don't think this is a case for a care order or this particular care plan. Will you please do the work again or will someone else do the work for you?"

Q99 Stephen Barclay: Would you describe the current service provided by Cafcass as "world class"?

Sir Nicholas Wall: I don't think any judge is ever fully satisfied with the service that is provided by anybody. Certainly we would not have the Interim Guidance if we were entirely satisfied with the work that has been done. I am very anxious not to get into a political debate about Cafcass because, as you will appreciate, the Government funds and organises Cafcass, and the judges have to make do with what they're given. I think both Mark and I would be unanimous, and all judges would be unanimous, in saying that what we want is children properly and independently represented in care proceedings. Any organisation that does not deliver that for whatever reason--and that is a matter for you--is not world class.

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