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

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

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

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

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

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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