Appoint guardians earlier to divert more cases from court and reduce delay

Findings from two pilot sites suggest children's guardians should be involved in care cases before the first court hearing to reduce delay and divert more cases from court

Cafcass PLUS model promotes better working with parents

Earlier joint working between children’s social workers and Cafcass guardians can divert care cases from court and reduce their overall length, research has found.

The family courts body Cafcass piloted a pre-proceedings approach in Warwickshire and Coventry, between January 2011 and May 2013, where guardians were introduced in cases before the application to court was made. A third pilot site in Liverpool is due to publish an interim report on the model, known as Cafcass PLUS.

Diversions and reductions

An independent report on the pilot, published today, found half of the cases involved in Coventry’s Cafcass PLUS pilot were diverted from court through a model of collaborative, additional work before the first court hearing. This work also led to more coherent assessments and reduced delay in cases that did go to court.

The model also had an impact on the length of care cases, reducing the overall average duration to 36.3 weeks, compared with the current general average of 46.9. Only 19% of cases in the overall sample were able to meet the family justice review’s target of 26 weeks, however.

The report into the pilot – one of a number of initiatives designed to reduce the length of care proceedings – reviewed 26 Cafcass PLUS cases across Coventry and Warwickshire against 30 typical cases, where guardians are not involved in cases pre-proceedings.

The overall diversion rate for the 56 cases was approximately 40%, but a higher proportion (50%) were diverted in the Coventry Cafcass PLUS cases. In Warwickshire, a third (33%) of the Cafcass PLUS cases were diverted.

However, the researchers, from Bradford and Lancaster Universities, noted the results should be viewed with “some caution, due to the small sample sizes”, and pointed out courts in Coventry had already demonstrated “positive practice on diverting cases from court”.

More kinship care placements

Social workers and guardians involved in the pilot were able to achieve more placements within a child’s extended family by carrying out extra work before the council made an application to court. This included better practice with parents, who first had to give their consent, and to establish kinship care arrangements within the family. 

The guardian reviewed relevant reports, observed parents with their children, attended formal meetings and discussed the case with both the child’s social worker and family. As a result, more plans and options for the child were in place by the first court hearing, meaning cases could be diverted from court or concluded quickly.

Dr Karen Broadhurst, one of the researchers, said the report emphasises the importance of ‘whole system change’, rather than just one factor. “The strongest message from this pilot is that very significant gains can be made where the council, Cafcass and judiciary engage in collaborative dialogue to promote whole system change.
 
“At the case level, there are some indications that the family court adviser has been able to offer a very valued independent perspective on diversion plans, and ensure plans are safe and supported for children in respect of achieving permanence within kinship networks”.

She continued: “It is likely that the shared learning between the agencies has contributed to a marked decrease in care proceedings duration more generally, and improved pre-proceedings work.”

New tool for care applications

Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said the pilot had “broken new ground in terms of joint working between Cafcass, councils and parents at the earliest possible stage”.

“The reductions in delay delivered by the Cafcass PLUS pilot led to us establishing our policy of becoming as involved as we can be pre-proceedings, resources permitting. I think this could be a precursor of a wider early intervention service in public family law,” he said.

A simplified tool to improve care applications by social workers is to be launched next week. Developed by Cafcass and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the tool is designed to replace traditional court bundles, often 400 to 500 pages long, with a “short, sharp document” that is only 30 to 40 pages.

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