Practitioners likely to feel the pressure as Cafcass sets new standards

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service’s professional strategy, launched last week, promises a notable change in the working lives of family court practitioners.

At the heart of Every Day Matters is a drive towards earlier intervention and faster allocation of cases to Cafcass practitioners – chief executive Anthony Douglas has set a target for all public and private law cases to be allocated within two days by April 2007. Although this now happens in parts of the country, Douglas points to delays of several weeks in others, particularly London.

The strategy also highlights that staff in some areas take 30 hours more than in others to complete public law cases.

And Cafcass is contending with increasing demand for its services, with the number of public law cases rising by 4 per cent a year.

But Douglas points out that Cafcass’s well-documented budget problems – it has had to take emergency measures to stave off a £4m overspend – prevent it hiring more staff to deal with the extra workload.

To address this, he proposes a number of measures, including a “more formal national prioritisation system” for allocating cases.

Douglas suggests Cafcass should focus on what is necessary in each case, “not what might be possible in an ideal world”, and calls for a reduction in the time spent on court reports as many are “much longer than judges ask for”.

But he is adamant that the proposals do not threaten the level of representation children receive. The strategy claims a “minimum necessary, maximum affordable” model will not “dumb down” its service.

Crucial to its success will be the introduction of proposed national minimum standards that will set out the level of service all children should receive from Cafcass, while practitioners will be subject to  tougher performance measurements.

Under the strategy, Cafcass will set national benchmarks for “efficient and effective work” and payment will be based on performance against those standards.

But Cafcass practitioners in England already feel underpaid and the service could face industrial action if union members vote against this year’s 2.5 per cent pay offer.

The strategy also raises the spectre of a redundancy programme, although this is likely to be voluntary and focus on back-office functions rather than front-line practitioners.

Douglas says all interested parties want earlier, more effective intervention in the family courts. He is backed by Malcolm Richardson, chair of the Magistrates Association’s family proceedings committee, who says: “It must be better for the child that their interests are represented at an earlier stage.”

Alison Paddle, chair of guardians’ organisation Nagalro, backs the principle of early intervention, but she is concerned about the detail of the proposals. She questions how Cafcass is using its budget, and accuses it of recruiting more service managers at the expense of front-line practitioners. She says some cases are allocated quickly and then passed on to other practitioners, resulting in a piecemeal response.

Although the two-day target for allocation will “tick the box of ‘this is not on the waiting list'”, she says it does not mean the child will get a good service.

Cafcass is not the only party dogged by delays, and the strategy has been published at a time of reform in the wider family court system. The Department for Constitutional Affairs is consulting on changes to care proceedings, and last week outlined plans to create a unified family court system to improve administration and cut delays.

But, with its focus on the needs of children, there is no doubt Cafcass can do the most to tackle what Douglas calls a “history of suffering” by children involved in family law proceedings.

  • Every Day Matters is available from The consultation runs until 31 January 2006.

  • More from Community Care

    Comments are closed.