Child protection experts have accused Cafcass of using £10m of new government funding to embed the controversial duty guardian system by the back door.
It was announced last week that Cafcass would receive the one-off investment to tackle the backlogs that built up as care applications soared following the baby Peter case.
Anthony Douglas, chief executive of Cafcass, said the money would be used “to fund the transition from the current service to a more sustainable long-term service in a tougher financial climate”.
Douglas said the recent six-month extension of interim guidance – which permitted Cafcass to allocate cases to duty teams rather than the named guardian specified in section 41 of the Children Act 1989 – had been “instrumental in allowing [Cafcass] to tackle backlogs locally”.
He said this system was “essential,” given the “unprecedented demand” for Cafcass’s services.
But guardians, lawyers and magistrates have reacted angrily, saying the news confirms their worst fears.
“This is the abolition of section 41 by the back door,” said Caroline Little, co-chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children.
“The duty system doesn’t work. There are still hundreds of unallocated cases and there is no sense of children coming first. Often, duty guardians haven’t spoken to parties involved in the case or even seen the files.
“I would be extremely concerned if government funding is wasted on a system that is untested and does not serve children’s interests,” she said.
Margaret Wilson, chair of the Family Courts Committee at the Magistrates’ Association, welcomed “any money which would improve on the tremendous backlog of cases”.
She added: “We need proper welfare advice and we need to know these vulnerable children are being allocated a named guardian throughout the entire case. We want a restoration of the full Rolls Royce service.”
But Douglas said such a service resembled a golden age and was no longer sustainable.
He said that, although the rate of increased referrals had slowed, it had stabilised at a higher level making it impossible to return to the previous system without creating a huge number of unallocated cases.
“The question for now is how we can work together to develop a family justice system that can handle cases quicker and to better effect,” he said.
Alison Paddle, former chair of guardians body Nagalro, called on Cafcass to invest the money in more frontline staff to provide the service that vulnerable children need.
Paddle said it was, “no coincidence that the backlogs in Cafcass’s service happened at a time of Ofsted-driven increases in bureaucracy, along with a bullying management ethos and when head office salary costs tripled in a year.”
“Only a reversal of all these wasteful approaches will lead to children once again receiving the high-quality, prompt, efficient service that is their statutory right,” she added.