Douglas ends first year with furth er crisis at court service

Anthony Douglas is having to deal with yet another crisis at the
Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service as he nears
the end of his first year in charge of the organisation.

Last week, Community Care revealed Douglas had instituted
measures to stave off a possible £4m overspend and requested
£2m from the Department for Education and Skills to ensure an
adequate pay settlement for staff this year. This is despite the
fact that Cafcass has already saved £3.85m this year.

Douglas, who joined as chief executive on 1 September 2004, has had
to deal with a number of problems.

Militant fathers’ groups have conducted a hate campaign against
staff, while there has been a massive increase in time-consuming
“rule 9.5 cases”, private law cases where guardians are appointed
to represent children when it is imperative that their voices are
heard – there were 1,120 cases in 2004-5. In the same period
Cafcass dealt with 31,000 private law cases and 13,000 public law
In addition, the government has pushed ahead with plans to increase
Cafcass’s role in mediating between parents and enforcing
But, by many accounts, Douglas, Cafcass’s third chief executive in
its four-year existence, has performed well. Case backlogs have
decreased in private law (see box), relations with fathers’ groups
have thawed and he has started to tackle the mistrust among staff
that has plagued the body since its birth.

Malcolm Richardson, chair of the Magistrates’ Association’s family
proceedings committee, says that Cafcass is in a much better state.
“Most people I’ve spoken to believe he’s a good man doing a good
job. He understands the issues and is grappling with them with

Douglas starts his second year looking to modernise the service.
His draft five-year plan is due for publication next month.

But just as Douglas looks to the long term, Cafcass finds itself in
the familiar position of crisis.

In a memo sent to staff earlier this month, which outlined the
cost-cutting measures, Douglas said the government was unlikely to
provide the £2m, which reflects grant money withheld in

A “worst-case scenario”, according to Douglas, is that Cafcass will
only be able to give staff a 1 per cent pay rise this year.

In a letter to junior children’s minister Maria Eagle last month,
he claimed unions Napo and Unison “would be obliged to ballot for
industrial action” should this happen.

Guardians’ body Nagalro also warns that self-employed practitioners
– whose relationship with the organisation has never been good –
may quit in droves in the event of a poor settlement.

Nagalro chair Alison Paddle claims that, to save money, Cafcass is
using fewer self-employed professionals, leaving children waiting
longer for a service.

Douglas admits his emergency measures, which include a freeze on
non-essential recruitment, may push up backlogs again.

He also claims that, in the current climate, the family resolutions
pilot – the blueprint for early intervention in private law cases –
cannot be funded beyond September.

However, these bad problems look considerably worse in the context
of Cafcass’s long-term ambitions. Douglas wants all the backlogs to
be eliminated, while increasing Cafcass’s role in mediation and
conciliation in private law. Although this should eventually save
money in reduced court work, it will require up-front

The Children and Adoption Bill promises new responsibilities in
monitoring parents’ compliance with contact orders, which Douglas
says will require new money.

And Cafcass will be undertaking these new responsibilities amid a
huge projected increase in demand for these services.

In its five-year strategy last year, the Department for
Constitutional Affairs predicted that the number of child residence
and contact orders would double from about 90,000 to 180,000 from
2002 to 2008.

And, rather than cut training, Douglas wants to double spending on
skills, reflecting in part Cafcass’s convergence policy, in which
practitioners from private and public backgrounds are trained to
perform both roles.

Douglas is also seeking a new contract with professionals, both
employed and self-employed, exchanging higher productivity for an
enhanced pay and benefits package for fewer practitioners.

The goodwill of staff – always delicate at Cafcass – will be
paramount, and a pay settlement that triggers a strike or an exodus
of the self-employed will be devastating.

The DfES’s line is that Cafcass has had a good deal over the past
two years, citing the increase from £95m to £107m from
2003-4 to 2004-5 to justify the freeze in 2005-6.

The implication is that the service could be managing its funds
better, prompting Napo to call for a National Audit Office probe
into the extent to which Cafcass’s problems stem from underfunding
or inefficiency.

Douglas’s position is that it is a bit of both. Like all front-line
child care organisations, we are underfunded. We are also not the
only organisation to be implementing a change programme. All of
them are having to do it on insufficient funding.”

There is evidence to support the feeling that the body is
underfunded. Finance director Nicholas Maude told Cafcass’s June
board meeting that “service activity” had increased by 2 per cent
since 2004, despite the freeze in its grant. This included a 107.8
per cent increase in “rule 9.5 cases”, which take three times
longer than average private law cases.

However, the chief executive is also convinced that practitioners
can become more productive.

In his letter to Eagle, he said there were areas in which
professional practice was “simply not good enough”, and declared
his ambition “to once and for all deliver a no-delays-or-backlogs
service to high professional standards”.

But this is an area in which the views of senior management and
many practitioners are in sharp conflict.

Paddle says excessive bureaucracy, not practitioner productivity,
is the issue. Guardians, in her view, should be given more
professional autonomy, not be reined in by limits on how long they
should spend on cases, as Douglas suggests. She warns that a
conflict with the self-employed will scupper Douglas’s efforts to
clear backlogs, adding: “Research shows that self-employed people
are among the more experienced practitioners and the most efficient
in their use of time.”

Before he even begins to tackle the productivity argument, Douglas
will have to keep staff sweet on pay.

The unions have called for above-inflation pay rises to give staff
in England parity with their colleagues in Wales, many of whom have
been on higher salary scales since Cafcass Cymru’s devolution to
the Welsh assembly.

But given its financial position, should Douglas deliver his goal
of a cost-of-living increase, he may buy a little time and goodwill
from staff to put his long-term plans into action.

Despite the critical situation, his attitude is one of confidence
within limits: “If I was to become depressed it would not help
anyone. My job is to find the best solution.” 

* A freeze on all vacancies unless “business
* Termination of all temporary and agency staff arrangements.
* Halt to IT upgrade and compilation of electronic case
* Interviewing children and families in Cafcass offices rather than
their own homes.
* Restrictions on travel, post and publishing expenditure.
* External sponsorship of Cafcass conferences.
* Better case prioritisation by practitioners.

April 2001: Cafcass established.
September 2001: Decision to end self-employment
for guardians quashed on judicial review.
November 2001: Chief executive Diane Shepherd
suspended, then sacked in July 2002.
June 2003: Transferred to DfES from Lord
Chancellor’s Department.
December 2003: Entire board asked to resign after
damning parliamentary report.
July 2004: Green paper on parental separation
proposes greater role in mediation.
September 2004: Anthony Douglas takes over as
chief executive.
October 2004: Cafcass offices hit by intimidation
campaign by militant fathers’ groups.
August 2005: News of financial crisis

Public law cases
unallocated 2004-5
Oct 04
Jan 05
Cafcass averaged 2.5 per cent
of public law cases unallocated at end of month against a target of
3 per cent
Private law cases
unallocated 2004-5
Oct 04
Jan 05
Cafcass averaged 3.7 per cent
of private law cases unallocated 10 weeks before report filing date
against a 4 per cent target

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