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

1  Responding to the increase in demand

1.  Cafcass looks after the interests of children involved in family court proceedings in England, who are often vulnerable. It provides an independent view of children's circumstances, advising the court on the child's best interests. The majority of cases occur when a local authority is applying for a care order for a child ('public law care cases') and where separating parents cannot agree on contact or residence arrangements for their children ('private law cases'). Cafcass works with many other agencies in a complicated system designed to keep children safe.[2]

2.  Cafcass was created in 2001 from 117 predecessor organisations with differing cultures.[3] In 2003 the Chief Executive and the entire board were removed following a critical Select Committee report.[4] The current Chief Executive took up post in 2004 and began the process of seeking to create a unified organisation. Many basic functions needed a complete overhaul, including human resources and finance.[5]

3.  By 2008 many of Cafcass's organisational problems had not been resolved, and it was not well placed to deal with the unprecedented and sustained increase in demand that followed the Baby Peter tragedy.[6] Cafcass's management expected, based on previous similar cases, that demand would increase by around 3 per cent or 4 per cent, and then would return to previous levels.[7] However, within a month demand for care cases had risen by over 30 per cent and has remained above that level. Cafcass did not have a suitable plan to respond to these circumstances. While Cafcass could not have predicted the full extent of the rise in demand, both the Department and Cafcass accepted that it was too slow to respond.[8]

4.  Temporary measures introduced by the judiciary considerably helped Cafcass meet the increase in demand.[9] In October 2009 the then President of the Family Division introduced Interim Guidance to the judiciary setting out temporary arrangements to prioritise cases, allocate care cases on a duty basis, and reduce the amount of work requested by the court on private law cases.[10]

5.  Duty allocations are interim allocations to a family court adviser to assess incoming cases and queries, intended to ensure early attention is given to riskier cases.[11] Following the introduction of the duty allocation of care cases, the number of unallocated care cases reduced from a peak of 1,000 in August 2009 to 150 in September 2010.[12] Cafcass also reduced the average time to fully allocate a care case from 40 days in September 2009 to 27 days,[13] but this level remained well above its goal to allocate all care cases within two days.[14] Duty allocation of care cases was unpopular with some Cafcass staff, courts, solicitors and local authorities.[15] These bodies regarded it as potentially detrimental to the children Cafcass was supporting, because the amount of work initially conducted on a duty case could be small.[16]

6.  When the Committee took evidence from the Department and Cafcass, the President of the Family Division was not planning to extend the Interim Guidance, and there was anxiety across the family justice system about the impact this would have upon Cafcass's performance.[17] Fifty per cent of remaining duty allocations were in London, where demand was most pressing, and duty allocation was also significant in South Yorkshire, where the local judiciary was keen on the process.[18] The Chief Executive of Cafcass was working with the judiciary to put in place similar local agreements for another year.[19] The Chief Executive told us that his relationship with leading judges in the family courts around the country was strong,[20] and he was confident that agreements would be reached.[21]

7.  Cafcass and the President of the Family Division have since made an agreement,[22] effective from 1 October 2010 for one year, on arrangements to assist Cafcass until the Family Justice Review is implemented. The agreement builds on the joint working and local agreements that were encouraged by the Interim Guidance. By having the judiciary and Cafcass operating to the Public Law Outline,[23] it aims to continue the reduction of backlogs in the allocation of public law cases to family court advisers and prevent their recurrence where they have been eliminated. The Guidance also seeks to minimise the use of Cafcass nominated duty advisers, except where the Designated Family Judge has agreed and published circumstances in which they may be used. The Department told us that the Family Justice Review,[24] due to report in 2011, was considering Cafcass's role and may recommend changes across the system.[25]

8.  A further major challenge for Cafcass is management of the increased number of open care cases. At the end of September 2010, Cafcass had nearly 12,000 fully allocated open care cases, over 2,500 more than a year before.[26] The rate at which courts were closing care cases fell from around 550 a month before the autumn of 2008 to around 150 a month in June 2010.[27] In the teams with the highest caseloads, family court advisers were at the limit of what Cafcass considered a sustainable workload.[28] To attempt to manage the increased caseload, Cafcass had improved throughput per family court adviser.[29] Its Chief Executive told us that their productivity had risen by 17 per cent over the past 15 months. Cafcass is developing a workload distribution system in partnership with trade unions to ensure fair allocation of work across and within teams, and limits on individuals' workloads.[30]

9.  The President's Interim Guidance had also resulted in a large drop in the number of reports requested by the courts on private law cases. In some areas, reports were requested in only 10 per cent of cases, whereas in others they were requested in 40 per cent of cases.[31] In court areas where a lower proportion of cases required reports, late filing occurred less often. Unlike the situation for care cases, the rate of new private law cases is falling slowly, and Cafcass closed more than 500 additional cases than it opened in the year to September 2010.[32]

2   Q 30 Back

3   Q 69 Back

4   Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department, Third Report of Session 2002-03, Children and Family Court Advisory Service (Cafcass), HC 614-1 Back

5   Q 69 Back

6   Q 1; C&AG's Report, para 31 Back

7   Qq 38 and 46 Back

8   Q 39 Back

9   Qq 3-4 Back

10   Qq 25, 42, 80; C&AG's Report, para 18 Back

11   C&AG's Report, para 2.17 Back

12   Qq 15 and 18; C&AG's Report, para 12 Back

13   Q 18 Back

14   Qq 19-22 Back

15   C&AG's Report, para 2.19 Back

16   Q 15 Back

17   Q 77 Back

18   Q 18 Back

19   Q 14 Back

20   Q 77 Back

21   Q 14 Back

22 Back

23   Qq 100-102 Back

24   Family Justice Review: The current Government has confirmed the previous Government's appointment of David Norgrove to lead a review of the family justice system, examining how it can be reformed to better support children and parents. It will look at the best methods of avoiding confrontational court hearings, and resolving family disputes outside of the court system, together with management of the family justice system. Back

25   Qq 5 and 100-102 Back

26   Q 25; Back

27   C&AG's Report, para 2.21 and Figure 10 Back

28   Q 83 Back

29   Q 81 Back

30 Back

31   Qq 16, 44-46 Back

32   Q 75; Back

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Prepared 11 November 2010