Family courts body Cafcass is now beyond reform and should be abolished, a committee of MPs was told this week.
Appearing before the Justice Select Committee, Martha Cover, respresenting the Interdisciplinary Alliance for Children – a group of 18 organisations, including Nagalro and the Association of Lawyers for Children – told MPs: “We have considered the possibility of reform rather than abolition, but we have come to the conclusion that [Cafcass’ inability] to change to meet the concerns of the other partners in the family justice system is such that we simply have to start again.”
Cover blamed Cafcass’s “overly centralised service and top heavy, hierarchical managerial structure”, which she claimed does not sufficiently value the independence and autonomy of family court guardians and family court reporters”.
“It is also an extremely expensive model to deliver,” she added, before revealing an alternative model to Cafcass, put forward by the Alliance, which MPs were told could deliver a better service, at reduced costs, by “removing huge layers of management”.
She described the alternative model as high trust professionals working in consortia, of 40 or 50 people, linked to the local care centres.
“We simply do not accept that the various strata of management and indeed the ideology of Cafcass are necessary for these types of professional people.”
She claimed 46% of Cafcass staff, based in local offices, were not frontline practitioners.
MPs questioned Cover on the viability of the new model and the risk of stripping away layers of management, asking her why Cafcass could not be reformed. She replied: “We’ve thought about ‘Cafcass lite’ or ‘the organisation formally known as Cafcass’, but we fear the culture and management ethos is so damaged that [it is not possible].”
The Alliance’s recommendations come just ahead of the Family Justice Review, which is due to publish its interim report next week. There has been widespread speculation about how the Review will impact upon Cafcass’ future.
Anthony Douglas, chief executive of Cafcass, defended the organisation’s performance before the committee. “We deal with 140,000 children every year – about the largest number of children any single organisation is dealing with. This is very difficult work and often child protection work is not done that well…in local authorities or across the board.
“Our performance, compared with a year ago, has improved considerably. One year ago we had over 1,000 unallocated cases…we now have just 7. We are providing a good service to the vast majority of children…we are fit for purpose.”
A Cafcass spokesperson also refuted the Alliance’s claims. “Over 90 per cent of our staff in local offices are frontline staff, delivering a direct service to children and families. Within our existing budget we’ve absorbed a massive increase in cases, with productivity up 12%.”
The spokesperson claimed Cafcass had a lean management structure but said the organisation also recognised that practitioners working on complex cases needed access to experienced managers with whom they could discuss cases and get support.
“All agencies, and not just Cafcass continue to be under pressure and we look forward to the recommendations of the Family Justice Review which will be looking at how the system as a whole, and not just the vital work Cafcass undertakes, can be improved for families and their children,” the spokesperson said.
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