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

Conclusions and Recommendations

1.  Cafcass, as an organisation, is not fit-for-purpose. Many areas still do not provide a timely service to the courts, and the average time to fully allocate care cases at 27 days, down from 40 days, is still well above what it should be. Cafcass and the Department should report back to the Committee in a year, when we will expect to see that they have completed firm actions and undertaken rigorous monitoring to achieve the large amount of improvement that is still required.

2.  With duty allocation needing to reduce quickly and substantially, there is a risk that the reductions could result in the scale of unallocated cases returning to the unacceptable levels seen in summer 2009. Cafcass should establish plans with clear milestones for every area to manage the reductions in duty allocation of care cases and take prompt action in circumstances where unallocated cases start to rise.

3.  Cafcass did not see the crisis coming, nor did it have a contingency plan in the event of a significant increase in demand. The specific impact of the Baby Peter tragedy was hard to predict, but the possibility of a sustained increase in cases was a scenario that Cafcass should have planned for. It should prepare robust contingency plans so that it is prepared to act when changed circumstances affect its business.

4.  Cafcass took far too long—until October 2008—to put in place an acceptable performance management framework and is still dealing with the legacy of under-performing staff and low morale. Cafcass's senior team should develop and implement a clear action plan to address existing and emerging skills gaps, and to raise performance and staff morale.

5.  Sickness absence among frontline staff is unacceptably high and significantly exceeds levels elsewhere in the public sector. Cafcass should develop a comprehensive set of actions to drive sickness absence down to acceptable levels, building on best practice elsewhere in the public sector. The Department should monitor Cafcass's progress against the implementation plan.

6.  Judges remain satisfied with the quality of reports to the courts, but caseloads carried by family court advisers have been increasing, which brings new risks to the quality of service provided to the courts and families. Cafcass should manage individuals' caseloads so that staff morale does not fall and the quality of reports to the courts is maintained or improved. Cafcass should also plan for the succession of the many experienced and longstanding family court advisers who are approaching retirement, in order to protect the continuity and quality of service.

7.  Low compliance by staff with important requirements has been a persistent problem, and has undermined Cafcass's efforts to improve performance. In driving through its Transformation Programme, Cafcass's top management should take personal responsibility for effectively communicating changes to staff. Managers at all levels should be assessed on their effectiveness in both inspiring staff to comply with corporate requirements and holding them to account for non-compliant behaviour.

8.  The quality of assessments on care cases by local authority social workers varies. Poor quality assessments place an additional burden on Cafcass as the courts must request a new assessment from Cafcass family court advisers if they cannot rely on the work of local authority social workers. The Department should work with local authorities to ensure that they are fulfilling their responsibility under the Public Law Outline to undertake appropriate pre-action work with the family, and to produce good assessments so that cases can proceed without requiring extra interventions or investigations by Cafcass.

9.  It is shocking that Cafcass has not previously collected all the information it needs to manage its workload more effectively. Shortcomings in the Case Management System make compiling trend data laborious but even so, Cafcass must undertake the data collection it needs to manage its business. It should agree with the Department the quality and type of information required and put in place measures to secure it. In addition, the Department should support Cafcass in securing a better service from the provider of its corporate IT systems.

10.  Cafcass has taken too long to secure essential changes, and much of the responsibility lies with top management. Driving through the Transformation Programme while overseeing consistent improvements in the level of service will take strong and vigorous leadership and communication. The Department should regularly monitor Cafcass's progress in implementing the Programme, holding senior management to account for any delay. Cafcass and the Department should review the robustness of the Programme regularly and take action promptly to resolve emerging problems.

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Prepared 11 November 2010