Troubles at Cafcass spell problems for child contact bill

The chief executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service has told staff to spend less time on some cases in order to stay within budget.

In a letter sent earlier this month, Anthony Douglas told staff they would have to reduce the time they spent on “low priority” cases to ensure higher priority cases could be effectively supported.

He also announced that all temporary staff and consultants would have to be let go, and confirmed there would be no extension of the Family Resolutions Pilot Project beyond September without additional external funding.

The news will raise concerns about the ability of Cafcass to meet new demands set out in the Children and Adoption Bill, published in June.

The bill aims to give an increased role for Cafcass in problem solving, with officers spending less time writing lengthy reports and more time helping parents reach and stick to child contact agreements.

As well as monitoring compliance of contact orders, Cafcass officers will be expected to play a key role in new contact activity directions – which will be used where a court is considering whether to make, vary or discharge a contact order. Their involvement in family assistance orders will also increase as restrictions on their use are lifted.

Even before Douglas’s letter, many in the sector had expressed concern about the capacity of Cafcass to deliver the new services.

However, the government insisted when it published the bill that “no net additional resources would be needed” for Cafcass in relation to contact activities, although there may be some resource implications associated with the reformed family assistance orders.

Douglas’s letter to staff followed a separate letter to children and families junior minister Maria Eagle predicting a potential overspend this year of up to £4m.

He said that, while £2.4m could be saved by delaying an IT upgrade and introducing changes such as increased workload targets for practitioners, the remaining £1.6m could only be saved by freezing critical vacancies or by introducing a lower pay settlement and lower than anticipated fee increase to self-employed guardians, which would automatically result in a ballot for industrial action.

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