Drive towards conciliation leaves children at risk in divorce cases

    Adrive by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support
    Services (Cafcass) to clear its backlog of public law cases has
    left the agency’s private law cases facing even bigger
    delays.

    Some critics believe that Cafcass has reduced its public law
    backlog – down from 718 in July 2003 to 290 in March 2004 – at the
    expense of representing children’s interests in marital breakdown
    cases.

    Carol Edwards, vice-chair of guardians and court reporters
    organisation Nagalro, says: “Delays in court are not caused by
    Cafcass. However, its concentration on reducing the backlog of
    public cases has led to an accumulation of private law
    cases.”

    These suspicions gained ground last week when, as part of a wider
    shake-up of the family justice system in England and Wales, the
    government proposed releasing Cafcass from writing dispute reports
    for most private law cases.

    In the year to March 2004, Cafcass received 33,803 requests for
    private cases, and wrote about 30,000 reports. At the same time it
    dealt with about 14,000 public law cases.

    The government believes that steering warring parents away from the
    courts will help Cafcass concentrate on safeguarding
    children.

    Cafcass is already gearing up for more involvement in in-court
    conciliation through “parent planning sessions”, which are the
    final part in a three-stage process.

    Targets in the organisation’s private law framework include a
    district judge holding a dispute resolution hearing within six
    weeks of application, and setting this aside for in-court
    conciliation. Cases with abuse allegations or where parents cannot
    agree will still be dealt with in court.

    Although this year’s Cafcass budget is up £12m to £107m,
    a spokesperson says: “It not yet clear what additional resources
    may be required as a result of any changes arising from the
    consultation document.”

    Edwards does not believe mediation will work. “Cafcass, with its
    limited resources, will be diverting too far from its core
    responsibilities. There is a risk that by not writing a proper
    report, the child’s view will not be properly analysed.”

    Liz Goldthorpe, chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children,
    agrees. “A move towards mediation creates a danger that abuse will
    be hidden more than it is now.”

    At present one-third of private law cases involve safety issues,
    but the green paper suggests children will be involved in mediation
    only if appropriate. The Adoption and Children Act 2002, which
    comes into force next January, provides for children to be
    heard.

    A former Cafcass practitioner says the voice of children is seldom
    heard. “Practitioners have little grounding in child protection
    issues. They tend to focus on the parents and have only 20 hours to
    devote to a case, including attending court and writing reports.
    This is inadequate for investigating potential abuse.”

    Allan Levy QC, who specialises in children and human rights law,
    says it is still unclear how it will work. “There are not enough
    judges and they tend to move around. We also have to take into
    account that parents may not wish to be reasonable.”

    Reconciliation is commendable, but it takes both parties to work.

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