Operations of the Family Courts - Justice Committee Contents


DELIVERY OF FAMILY COURT WELFARE SERVICES: AN ALTERNATIVE MODEL

Supplementary evidence from the Interdisciplinary Alliance for Children (FC 71)

Further to the oral evidence session on behalf of the Interdisciplinary Alliance for Children (IAC) on the 22 March we thought it might be helpful to elaborate on some of the key questions raised by members of the committee.

We are also concerned that the Family Justice Review appears to have adopted—uncritically and without an evidence-base—the "proportionate" working model proposed by Cafcass. This appears to be the case not simply with regard to the work of guardians but also with respect to the work of children's solicitors (see "3" below). We also now understand that despite concerns expressed about the new Operating Manual (not least by members of the Justice Committee during the Cafcass session on 22 March) that the manual is now scheduled for launch in July. We reiterate our concerns that this model is not good for children or courts and we expand on our concerns below.

1.  PRE-CAFCASS SERVICES FOR COURTS AND THE NEED FOR CHANGE

It is necessary to briefly return to the earlier system of providing welfare reports for courts to assist the committee in taking a balanced view about practices pre-Cafcass and the need for change. The main driver of the reforms which resulted in the formation of Cafcass emanated from the private law sphere where it was necessary to "de-couple" family work from the Home Office and the Probation Service and its evolution within a department concerned with crime and juvenile justice.

In public law cases children's guardians were located in local authority panels, it was necessary to address the conflict of interests that arose because panels were administered and funded by local authorities (who were also the applicant for an order). It was therefore necessary to move the guardian service so that it could be clearly demonstrated to parents, children and the wider public that the service was completely separate from the influence of local authorities and could provide a critical perspective on their work (see, Transcript, session 22 March, Q221—Truss).

That move (from local authority panels guardians to the centralised Cafcass service) was thus not because of disquiet/high rates of dissatisfaction with the quality of the guardian service, on the contrary, so far as the work of guardians was concerned the panel system was very successful (as evidenced by the DoH, HO, LCD and Welsh Office (1998) Joint Consultation Paper, and Para 9, IAC (2011) Cost Comparisons, (submission, 18 March); and Transcript, Q22 I—Truss, and Cover, response).

2.  MANAGEMENT INFORMATION

Much has been said about the cost of the service, the allocation of resources between different categories of workers and indeed definitions of "front line workers" vary. In particular we feel the committee would be assisted by more precise information from Cafcass on the ratio of front line staff (defined as family court welfare officers, children's guardians and family support workers) to managers, and the nature of each of their duties.

3.  THE FUTURE OF CAFCASS

The Family Justice Review has taken a view that it is possible to improve Cafcass rather than abolish it. We question whether it is possible to improve a deficit model—and one which has already been discredited in the social care arena. Indeed the proportionate, process driven model is in direct conflict with the recommendations of the Social Work Reform Board and the Munro Report. There are, for example, significant differences between the high trust professional model we propose (based on highly qualified, skilled and experienced practitioners) and the proportionate, process driven managerial model now being embedded by Cafcass.

Moreover, once that model is in place it will prove difficult if not impossible to retrieve the service. It should also be noted that as the Rules stand, judges can already determine the necessary work guardians undertake in each case. It does not require an extra tier of management or further practice guidance to determine what courts require in order to expedite cases.

Equally, with regard to a suggestion in the FJR interim report that a proportionate model (operated by the judge) might determine the work of the children's solicitor (see Paras 4.254-255—interim report). We would point out that this is problematic on several counts, not least because it suggests that solicitors do unnecessary work, but also with regard to the Solicitors' Code of Conduct which identified that a solicitor's independence to act on behalf of his/her client must not be compromised.

4.  AN ALTERNATIVE MODEL: ISSUES OF APPRAISAL, TRAINING AND PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

Under the alternative professional model proposed by the Alliance, the model would be linked to a system of independent appraisal and family court welfare workers and children's guardians would be subject to ongoing training and professional development (under a system of yearly compulsory CPD points to be obtained by each practitioner, as this applies to other professionals in the family justice system).

5.  FAMILY JUSTICE SYSTEM: A MULTIDISCIPLINARY MODEL

In the early days of Children Act proceedings there was much multidisciplinary training (ie training in which the audience consisted of all key stakeholders - children's guardians, social workers, children's advocates, local authority lawyers—and in some instances judges and magistrates). Over recent years there have been far fewer such initiatives. Increasingly, anecdotal evidence indicates many local authority social workers (and some guardians) do not have an adequate working knowledge of The Children Act 1989 and revised Guidance, the Public Law Outline and supporting Practice, Human Rights legislation—or indeed the UNCRC and its implications for their work with children and young people.

6.  THE PROPOSED ALTERNATIVE MODEL FOR COURT WELFARE SERVICES AND ISSUES OF ACCOUNTABILITY, STANDARDS AND INSPECTIONS, AND WORKING PRACTICES AT CASE LEVEL

(a)  Accountability: the alternative model devolves certain powers to the 39 Family Court Welfare and Representation units making local services accountable to and serving the existing 39 family court care centres.

     Practitioners and their duties under the statutory framework are listed in "the diagram" (see submission, 27 January). Working to the needs of local courts, the key principles and priorities are set out in the Alliance submission (Principles A-G, submission 27 January) so that children's rights, welfare and interests as these are established in domestic law and international conventions remain central to practice—but—within a structure with a small and limited bureaucracy (see Transcript, Q245—Chair; Cover—response) and one that allows qualified practitioners to exercise professional discretion and judgements.

     The alternative model sets out the clear statutory framework for practitioner duties, their direct accountability to the court as well as responsibilities to their employing body. This model is different—both to the existing model and practice guidance of Cafcass and to aspects of the pre-Cafcass panel system (see, Transcript, Qs221, 223—Truss; Q231 - Perry). It offers improvements and potential savings (see Q224—Llwyd) and is a high trust model which does not require the management structures and culture instigated by Cafcass (see, Qs224, 22 —Llwyd; Q227—Gummer; Cover—responses including response at Q231).

(b)  Local and central functions: the alternative model retains a central regulatory function for national contracts, national conditions of employment, national standards and national systems of inspection and accountability. Coordination of IT systems and systems of data collection and analysis would also be organised nationally. This framework is different to the pre-Cafcass service (see, Transcript Q221—Truss; Q230—Perry; Qs246, 246—Chair; Cover—responses) regarding the ability of the alternative model to address these issues - while at the same time devolving certain powers to local level to meet and respond to local family justice needs.

(c)  A Chief Family Justice Welfare Practitioner: the alternative model would also mirror certain proposals in the Munro Report -in that the role of the Chief Social Worker proposed by Munro would be complemented by a new post in the Family Justice System: the Chief Family Justice Welfare Practitioner. However, note that as a "discipline" while this post would be social work based, it will demand skills, experience and expertise which move beyond social work practice, placing it firmly within family justice practices and procedures and the welfare needs of courts.

     In addition to linear policy responsibilities across the family justice system, this person would liaise directly with the Chief Social Worker in the DfE so that the system engages in joined up policy, thinking and practice over the entire path which children travel (both pre and post court proceedings). This aspect of the model is very different to the existing Cafcass model and previous systems and would facilitate an overall view of services for vulnerable children - but one which is built on local family justice issues, needs and practices (see, Transcript Qs234, 235—Truss; Cover—responses).

(d)  The benefits of a "mixed economy" workforce: a "mixed economy" workforce within the IAC model for court welfare services means that such a service would of course retain practitioners currently employed by Cafcass (who would retain all existing employment rights and benefits) as a large employed workforce. Employed practitioners would be supported by a self employed workforce and with others, for example, independent social workers coming together in co-operative enterprises etc. to provide a more effective service for courts and families.

     This mixed economy of practitioners (see, Diagram—list of practitioners) would ensure additional capacity for the family justice system as and where it was needed. It would provide the means to address delay as it arose, it could respond to peaks and troughs in demand more quickly and it would have the flexibility to meet regional variations in demand by facilitating the movement of practitioners between the 39 units which would make up the proposed service (see, Transcript, Q232—Perry).

7.  IMPACT OF CHILDREN AND ADOPTION ACT 2006—COST IMPACT

It is a point of concern to us that contrary to claims by Cafcass, the new private law duties under this Act (eg section 16 risk assessment) have not been "cost neutral". Indeed it is likely that that these changes to practice with additional duties for Cafcass have accounted for at least as much pressure on service delivery targets as that attributed to the impact of "Baby P".

June 2011


 
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Prepared 14 July 2011