Family courts body Cafcass’s national business centre received a positive rating from Ofsted in December. Camilla Pemberton finds out how it deals with 45,000 private law applications a year.
On a typical day, at least 200 private law applications will arrive at Cafcass’s national business centre (NBC) in Coventry. Every application – from a parent or guardian – will be different, but each will represent a child who has experienced family breakdown.
The applications are sent from family courts around the country to be screened by a family court adviser (FCA) – a three years’ post-qualified social worker with experience in child protection and risk assessment. Their job is to identify any child safeguarding issues before the first court hearing.
“We may not be at the sharp end of child protection,” says service manager Linda Cane, “but families involved in private law proceedings have often been through a very traumatic time. Our duty is to ensure that every child is safe.”
Despite the high numbers of applications – around 45,000 in England per year – the team is performing well. All cases are screened within 24 hours while any that reveal serious concerns are referred to children’s services within two hours. Awarding the centre a ‘good’ rating last month, Ofsted said it had created “very significant savings in time and financial resources whilst providing a substantially improved service.”
“It’s been exciting to see the service develop so well,” Cane says. “It’s fantastic, and fast, safeguarding work. It’s also a great office and morale is high. Everyone takes their work very seriously and understands they are dealing with children’s lives.”
Yet she admits many families and social workers know little about the service. “We deal with a lot of middle-class, educated parents who have had no involvement with social services and don’t understand why we need to screen for safeguarding issues.
“Social services don’t always understand our role properly either. We screen cases so we can inform the court prior to the first hearing. We don’t have an investigative role; that’s why it’s essential we work collaboratively with children’s services,” she says.
The life of a private law case: Linda Cane (right) runs through the life of a private law application, prior to the first court hearing:
• People making a private law application to a family court – such as a father wanting to apply for contact with his children following a divorce or separation – will fill out a C100 form and send it to the court. The court sends this on to the NBC.
• Applications arrive at the NBC in the post or via email at the beginning of the day.
• Each application is logged and sent to an FCA who will screen it on the same day.
• The FCA will examine the application to see whether any harm boxes have been checked – boxes applicants can check to highlight safeguarding issues they want the court to be aware of, such as domestic violence or a former partner’s substance misuse.
• Cases where a harm box has been checked will be prioritised.
• In these cases, applicant will also have provided a C1A form with more detail, including their perception of the risk to their children. FCAs will examine both documents to establish whether there is a genuine risk of harm.
• If there is, the FCA will look at the current contact arrangements and establish whether there are protective factors already in place.
• If there is no need for immediate action, the FCA will apply for police and local authority checks to ensure they do not reveal any concerns about either parent. (Every application for residence and contact orders is subject to these checks.)
• If a case needs immediate action the FCA will make a section 47 referral to children’s services and transfer the case to the local Cafcass team.
• After harm cases have been dealt with, the cases where no harm box is checked will be screened. Cane says: “Safeguarding issues may be found in the applicant’s statement because they might disclose something which they haven’t themselves identified as a risk. For example, we had a case where the mother revealed that her ex partner, the children’s father, was in prison and would soon be released. That was something we wanted to look into further.”
• All cases are processed within 24 hours and transferred to local Cafcass teams who liaise with children’s services, where necessary, and the relevant court. Cane says: “Only a small number of our private law cases are referred to children’s services. If we haven’t made a referral but still have concerns that need following up, we make this clear to the local Cafcass team when we transfer the file.”