Two of the country’s top family judges have backed Cafcass, with reservations, claiming there has been no deterioration in the quality of children’s guardian reports despite the increase in public law care applications.
While giving evidence to the public accounts committee today, Sir Nicholas Wall, president of the family division, and Sir Mark Hedley, High Court judge in London, were asked if Cafcass was “fit for purpose”.
Hedley said that most people had been fervent supporters of Cafcass when it was launched as there were problems with local authorities funding independent guardians.
“There have been persistent arguments about whether it was given adequate funding when it was launched which I can’t really comment on because I don’t know. However, as a trial judge I consider myself quite well served by Cafcass guardians so all I can say is that the service as it is delivered on the ground is fit for purpose. Whether the organisation is, I’m afraid I don’t feel I’m in a position to judge.”
Sir Nicholas Wall said although he did not believe Cafcass was offering a world class service he had not had any feedback from judges that individual guardian reports had suffered.
He said he wanted to see the end of the duty guardian system “because nobody likes it” but had agreed to it continuing in some areas, if local judges were happy with it, until the outcome of the family justice review.
He had also instructed all judges to become “case managers” in their courts, instructing guardians when they felt one was needed and ordering what guardian reports should focus on to try and save time in proceedings. He admitted the move had not been “universally popular” among judges but he did not see any other option.
Hedley said that although Cafcass had made great inroads on backlogs in London he was worried that individual guardians might pay the price.
“What we do know is that Cafcass guardians are now carrying at least double the workload that they were a year ago. How that might filter through in terms of the service offered I’m not in a position to be able to predict.”
He said the backlog arrangement made in London meant that guardians needed to be present only at the four key moments in a court case including the first hearing, the case management hearing, the issue resolution hearing and the final trial. Therefore, guardians should be able to take on more cases.
“How that will work in practice remains to be seen. Cases will be allocated quickly so they can attend the first hearing but the problem might come down the line when we can see the impact on individual practitioners,” Hedley said.
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