Operation of the Family Courts - Justice Committee Contents

Written evidence from the National Association of Child Contact Centres (FC 25)

NACCC is a registered charity and the umbrella organisation for 350 child contact services offering supervised and/or supported contact. These services form an integral part of the family justice system and have protocols with the judiciary, family lawyers and CAFCASS. Many of the services are commissioned, have contracts with or are grant aided by CAFCASS.


1.  A recent directory of legal terms developed by the Cumbria Family Justice Council for court users with a learning disability defined CAFCASS as "an (sic) service which is not part of the courts, social services, education and health authorities that looks after the interests of children involved in family court cases and provides information and advice to the Judge, families and children in Court proceedings".

2.  The role of CAFCASS is therefore invaluable to provide expert evidence to the Court based solely on the welfare of the children rather than the interests of the parents or the various state institutions. Adequately and flexibly funded and staffed it was beginning to achieve these aims.

3.  In recent years the lack of sufficient funding, the increase in the breadth of its workload with the addition of major safeguarding responsibilities coinciding with the demoralising effects of repeatedly negative OFSTED inspections and a huge and unforeseen surge in both public and private law applications has led to a major turnover in staff and an unsustainable increase in officers' workloads. In the recent past this has led to a major backlog in new cases being dealt with, officers being unavailable to attend court hearings and court meetings. This, combined with the exchange of experienced staff for newly appointed workers unfamiliar with the nuances of family court workings or the particular problems of private law contact disputes, has had a negative impact on the trust of the judiciary in the organisation and caused very serious delays in an already overstretched system.

4.  Practitioners have been particularly exasperated by the major backlogs leading to delay which all in the family justice system recognise as not only being very detrimental to the best interests of children but also in many cases being positively harmful. This is at a time when well respected supervised services have been unable, due to Legal Aid Fund changes, to use their proven expertise in providing expert reports to the courts and current contracted "matter starts" already proving inadequate for the ever increasing demand.

5.  When Legal Aid was removed from Supervised contact assessments it was on the basis that this was the role of CAFCASS. However CAFCASS funding was not increased to cover the shortfall experienced by the services and they have stood idle, closed and/or lost experienced practitioners out of the family justice system whilst the CAFCASS officers have been buried in unallocated files and children have suffered excessive delay.

6.  It is difficult to really know whether the placing of CAFCASS within the Department of Education and its predecessor departments has had a detrimental effect. It certainly would have been a "bigger fish" had it been sponsored by the Ministry of Justice and it is possible that the Legal Services Commission may have had a better understanding of its operations and their complementing rather than duplication or competition by contact service providers, but this must always be speculation.


1.  Please note the responses to question 1 contained in paragraphs 4 and 5 concerning the delays introduced into the system by the withdrawal of legal aid from supervised contact reports at a time their numbers were increasing and when CAFCASS lacked the man power to deal with them or the finance to contract them out.

2.  Every increase in legal aid thresholds leading to a reduction in those qualifying results in an increase in litigants in person (LIPs) which inevitably means longer court hearings and therefore delay. Judges have to spend extra time ensuring that the unrepresented parties understand the proceedings and are helped to complete the correct forms and documents. Timetables set out to aid the parties are rarely complied with and LIPs lack the detachment and experience to drop untenable, weak or irrelevant arguments and to accept unpalatable decisions rather than pursuing doomed appeals leading to delay, increased costs and frustration for the represented party as well as the judge which may of itself hinder compromise.

3.  The failure to increase the rate of legal aid for over a decade has led to the steady erosion of experienced family lawyers for many years. The new family law contracts are leading to more closures of family practices and more matters being dealt with by paralegals. Families are now faced with having to change solicitors and travel great distances to find representation, thus reducing choice. All of this has a negative effect which runs right through the family justice system. Family law is not a mathematical formula; each case depends on the character and circumstances of each party and the dynamics of fractured and damaged families. Knowing how these can affect the instructions they receive, knowing which agencies exist to help and how to access them appropriately can ultimately save the court huge amounts of time in avoiding repeated hearings and appeals as they tackle the root causes of the disputes rather than the symptoms.

iii)  The Role, Operation and Resourcing of Mediation and Other Methods in Resolving Matters Before They Reach Court

1.  As has been stated earlier family disputes are rarely straightforward and easily resolved by court intervention. In a contact dispute for instance, mum's alleging of dad's inexperience with and consequent inability to be left alone with their child may actually arise from other factors: her jealousy at dad having a new partner; his failure to provide adequate maintenance; her desire to cut all links in order to form a new family unit with a new partner ; the new partner's jealous and controlling nature None of these are easily dealt with within an adversarial court system but rather require the involvement of mediation, therapy for adults and children, provision of contact centres to build trust and form or strengthen relationships etc The latter are as vital as the courts in achieving life changes to better improve the lot of children, but their existence is increasingly precarious reliant on the whims of government fashion, the generosity of funders who often favour short-term, new and novel over the tried and tested. This can cause mission drift and the wasting of skills and expertise as contracts are won and lost and funding streams change.Thus, established efficient services are jeopardised.

2.  The family justice system is creaking and has been for years, with much more demanded of far fewer staff. Cases which ten years ago would have been dealt with by high court judges are now considered by magistrates; straightforward contact disputes never now come to court yet the numbers themselves continue to increase and much of the external provision is provided by the voluntary sector and by volunteers heavily reliant on a reducing number of funders.


3.  Family courts deal in matters which are extremely personal. Parties are emotional and often say and do things which in hindsight perhaps many years later they would regret. The children are the innocent victims caught in the middle and often used as an excuse for vitriol poured out by the parties in private law cases and the inadequacy of the parties in public law cases. Today"s news remains for ever on the web, accessible long after the harm of the proceedings themselves should have healed. This may jeopardise the honesty of parties. It may be seen that this causes additional harm to the emotional well-being of children. On the other hand, NACCC is able to see the advantages to parties of transparency in some instances. NACCC does not have a specific stance on this issue .

September 2010

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Prepared 14 July 2011