Cafcass sets out to improve handling of private law cases

Increased funding should enable the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support service to improve its private law work as much as it has its public law practice. Amy Taylor reports

This year has been a busy one for the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. The past few months have seen the publication of two critical Ofsted reports and last week the organisation published its annual report for 2007-8, heralding its achievements and outlining its plans for improvement.

Cafcass has a unique position in social care as the biggest single employer and contractor of social workers in England, dealing with 80,000 cases a year. It has been a source of controversy since its creation in 2001 and seems in a constant state of flux amid new initiatives and restructuring.

The organisation has long claimed it is under-resourced. This year the annual report outlines a three-year grant settlement from the government for 2008-11 for the first time, which represents a 7% increase year on year. It is an excellent allocation, says Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas, which will allow the organisation to plan improvement on a longer term.

“For the first time we will be able to put a proper staff development, training and support strategy in place,” he says. “These things don’t come cheap. The work is complex and demanding. Staff need a lot of support and training. This [the new resources] will allow us to do that.”

In the report Douglas outlines practice improvement, particularly in terms of private law cases, as being the organisation’s top priority for 2008-11. Doubtless, one reason behind this lies with two recent Ofsted reports which found Cafcass’s private law practice to be inadequate. An inspection of the South East region, published in May, and an inspection of the East Midlands region, published in February, criticised the standard of private law court reports and found children may be being put at risk.

Rightly criticised

Douglas acknowledges the problems but reminds us that a few years ago it was the organisation’s public law work which required attention. “Previously we were rightly criticised for very long delays in public law,” he says. “That was when I started in 2004. We have spent a lot of time on that programme. What we have to do now is support our work on private law cases.”

Paul Bishop, Cafcass representative for family court union Napo, disputes Ofsted’s assertion that private law work was inadequate in the two regions, arguing that inspectors misunderstanding Cafcass’s work was an issue. But he agrees that public law cases have, wrongly, been given precedence.

“They (private law cases) have been given a lot less attention. The South East region report says private cases were allowed to stack up,” says Bishop. “There’s always been an assumption that children in public law cases are more at risk but actually it’s children in private law who are more at risk as they are still stuck in the middle of two warring parents, whereas in public law children are [often] in foster care.”

When Cafcass was created in 2001 many professionals working in family court welfare teams moved over to it. They are now starting to retire and are being replaced by council social workers. While experience and supervision ensures the group becomes competent, Cafcass underestimates the amount of training they require, says Bishop. “Private law work is very different to public law work, and my perception is that there has been a widespread view that former council social workers can undertake this work with little training,” he says.


Cafcass says all new staff undergo a mandatory five-day induction programme which covers two days on private law. Practitioners also receive a rigorous programme of continuous professional development.

The increased budget will pay for improvements to Cafcass’s private law work but it is equally vital that practitioners believe in it, says Helen James, chair of Nagalro, the professional association for children’s guardians. Cafcass staff must be given time to get used to the plans, she says.

“They do need to prioritise practice, and while extra funding is very welcome it will not be sufficient in itself. There is also a need to provide the practitioners with some stability as there have been continuing changes in practice, processes and management and the start of the Public Law Outline,” she says.

Improved risk assessments, case plans, case recordings and direct work with children in private law make up the changes outlined in the report. A central part of this is Cafcass’s increasing focus on dispute resolution work, which aims to help families resolve conflict at an early stage and come to an agreement which can then be agreed in court.

Douglas says practitioners need to be given more support to do this well: “We need to be stronger on risk assessment and engaging with children. We haven’t allowed much time for practitioners to get to grips with these cases and we are going to have to put more resources into the earlier stages of private law cases to give them enough time.”

Both Ofsted reports also found ineffective management to be a problem. In April a new Cafcass structure came into place to help address this. The body changed from 10 regions to 21 local service areas, each run by a head of service. Directly underneath this new role, service managers will manage frontline staff and concentrate on practice in performance. Service managers will oversee no more than 10 family court advisers each.

Family support

There is also set to be an increase in the number of family support workers.

Douglas is confident the structural changes will bring about improvements, but James says: “Nagalro does not favour increased man-management. What is needed are practitioners and managers with good professional judgement. The effect of increasing bureaucracy with an emphasis on an increasingly managed approach undermines the professional skill, judgement and confidence of practitioners.”

Domestic violence features in many of Cafcass’s cases. As with private law the body has come under fire on the issue. A report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Court Administration, published in September 2006, found practitioners to be inadequately assessing the impact of domestic violence in private law cases. It went on to state that frontline practice on the issue had not improved since a previous HMICA report published in autumn 2005.

The 2006 report led to large-scale, and ongoing, domestic violence training for Cafcass staff, but the South East region Ofsted report still found similar concerns.

Douglas agrees that Cafcass, along with the rest of the family justice system, needs to improve its assessment of domestic violence: “The way in which domestic violence affects children is still being recognised and understood. Often family violence remains quite hidden from view. We have got quite a long way to go on that,” he says.

A further Ofsted report on the South Yorkshire region is due out shortly. Cafcass says it is unable to comment prior to publication, but the report is expected to cite similar concerns to its predecessors. Cafcass says the inspection, as with the other two, took place prior to April’s restructure and investment in practice. With these both now in place, this time next year there will be nowhere to hide.

Digest of Community Care news stories about Cafcass, going back to its inception

Published in the 24 July issue of Community Care under the headline Ups and Downs at Cafcass


South East inspection report, May 2008

East Midlands inspection report, February 2008

Cafcas annual report

Inspection of Cafcass private law practice by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Court Administration

Domestic violence, safety and family proceedings (HMICA), October 2005

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