Changes to the guardians ad litem system have resulted in fears
about their independence, Jonathan Pearce reports.
Brain damage; extensive bruising to face, back, buttocks and
limbs; internal injuries – dead, aged eight, 1972.
The death of Maria Colwell, starved and beaten to death at the
hands of her stepfather, calls out across the decades.
The Colwell inquiry1 eventually led to the
establishment of panels of guardians ad litem in 1984 to safeguard
the interests of children entering care or in adoption cases. Since
then, other inquiries into child deaths and abuse have repeated the
need for an independent voice for children.
At the beginning of April, the guardian service in England and
Wales2 was incorporated into the Children and Families
Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass). Cafcass is a
non-departmental public body that brings together: the Family Court
Welfare Service; the children’s section of the Official Solicitor’s
Department; and the Guardian ad Litem and Reporting Officer
The reform promises a more child-focused, a more professional
service, a better service to the courts and a more visible and
Yet, Cafcass is at the centre of controversy over its plans for
the self-employed guardians. Eighty per cent of the more than 1000
guardians in England and 50 plus in Wales are self-employed.
The dispute between Cafcass and the National Association of
Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers (Nagalro) has focused on
the imposition of graduated fixed-fees payments.
But at its heart lie issues of professionalism, independence,
management, accountability, autonomy and, above all, the protection
of vulnerable children. If it is not resolved satisfactorily,
guardians will be unable to scrutinise local authorities’ care
plans properly, wider investigations will be curtailed, more
decisions will be rubber-stamped and, inevitably, more children
will be endangered, claims Nagalro.
Cafcass chairperson Anthony Hewson admits to problems in
creating the service, including a “history of poor communications,
lack of time and space…and increasingly a lack of trust and
It is clear that the guardian service is at a crossroads. Over
its lifetime, the service has developed into something that is
anathema to modern performance management -Êa combination of
employed and self-employed guardians, working through 57 panels,
with no fixed budgets, a limited and flat management structure and
accountable only to the courts.
The challenge is to impose management and accountability on an
invaluable child protection system -Êwithout the need for
Local authorities, which used to fund the panels, value the
guardians, but welcome Cafcass, not least for controlling the
“Guardians are significant players for us,” says Andrew
Christie, Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s assistant director,
children’s services. “Cafcass will mean they are rather more
directly managed. Most guardians are very good, but some are
idiosyncratic. They have had financial responsibility without
But money spent on guardians represents a drop in the ocean for
councils. In the last year, Hammersmith and Fulham Council spent
£140,000 on its guardian panel -Êout of an overall budget
of £20 million. On average, each case costs about £3,000.
Under Cafcass, the amount spent on guardians will increase from
£20.7 million to £21.5 million, says the Lord Chancellor
Derry Irvine. However, there are claims that 15 per cent of this
figure is allocated for organisational costs, although the Cafcass
management structure is still far from clear.
According to Graham Wheeler, chairperson of the Association of
Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers Panel Managers, the
changes are about evolution, not revolution. “There are gaps in the
infrastructure, but a fabric is coming together,” he says.
But Vivien Salisbury, Buckinghamshire’s panel manager, has
resigned rather than join Cafcass. “There is a great potential for
the service, but it is so incompetently handled that children’s
protection will be set back a number of years,” she says.
“The long-term future of the service will not be maintained,
unless people are going to look at the independent way in which
guardians work,” she continues. “We will lose a lot of good people.
We have already lost a lot of good will. One really has to ask what
the vision is. Given the recruitment and retention problems in
local authorities, it fills me with dismay.”
Nagalro council member Pauline Lawrence agrees: “If it wasn’t
for the role of guardians, we wouldn’t be doing this sort of
frontline social work.”
She is clear that an overly prescriptive payment and management
structure will threaten the quality and extent of investigations.
Even the Lord Chancellor seems sympathetic: “I hope that peace will
break out and that these experienced professionals, whom we value
highly, will come over to Cafcass on terms that they can accept as
1 Field and Fisher, Report of the
Committee of Inquiry into the Care and Supervision Provided in
Relation to Maria Colwell, HMSO,1974
2 Homes Office, Criminal Justice and
Court Services Act 2000, HMSO2000
Guardian ad litem tasks
- Interviewing children, parents, professionals and others.
- Reading and analysing case files, witness statements, documents
and evaluating evidence.
- Liaising with the court, informing those with parental
- Ascertaining the child’s wishes and feelings, working with the
child’s solicitor and report writing.
- Attend panel business, professional consultation, training,
reviews and evaluation, setting up clerical systems.
Source: Department of Health, Manual of Practice
Guidance for Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers,
Statistics on care and adoptions
At 31 March 2000:
- Guardians were appointed in proceedings resulting in 10,000
Children Act 1989 orders being made in 1998:
- 4,910 care orders.
- 2,473 emergency protection orders.
- 1,007 secure accommodation orders.
- 829 supervision orders.
- 761 residence orders.
- In 1999-00 there were 2,700 adoptions from local authority
care; 40 per cent were contested and a guardian appointed.
Sources: Children Act Reports 1995-1999, Department of
Health; Children Looked After by Local Authorities Year Ending 31
March 2000, February 2001, Department of Health.