Cafcass has been forced to leave “lower priority” cases unallocated in one region because of mounting workloads for family court advisers (FCAs).
It has introduced the prioritisation protocol in the South Yorkshire and Humber region, meaning public law and high-priority private law cases will be allocated to FCAs but others left until an adviser becomes available.
But with mounting caseloads across the country, the organisation hasn’t ruled out extending the prioritisation model to other regions.
Cafcass has said the situation derives from the impact of Covid-19 – in terms of staff absence and increasing backlogs in the family courts – on an already stretched family justice system.
‘The most difficult decision of my career’
Cafcass chief executive Jacky Tiotto said: “Taking the decision to stop allocating all the work that comes to us has been one of the most difficult of my professional career.
“There are no easy answers when trying to balance the needs of children and families against the finite capacity of professional social work staff to be supported to carry out their work safely and effectively.”
The model (see below) involves allocating public law cases and those private law ones where there are concerns about the child’s safety and welfare and Cafcass is the only safeguarding agency involved.
Tiotto added: “We are holding at the front of our minds that each case we do not allocate involves one or more children who need our help and we are working closely with our partners to explore all the options available…We hope this is a temporary situation, though we are worried about the continued impact of rising demand and slower system throughput across the country.
“We are monitoring our caseloads and the wellbeing of our staff to support them to be able to do the best they can to serve the children’s best interests. I truly am so sorry it has come to this moment.”
As of 13 November, Cafcass had 36,915 open cases, 19.1% up on November 2019, with a 16% rise in public law and 21% hike in private law cases.
In relation to work after a first hearing, average caseloads for FCAs were 24.1 with three-quarters of qualified staff holding more than 20 cases.
Average caseloads for frontline managers averaged 17.9, while 4,600 cases were allocated to FCAs who were already above the thresold for high caseloads (40 cases for those in early intervention teams and 25 for those in other teams).
Covid-19 has had a significant impact on the service, particularly in increasing delays and slowing the progress of cases in the family courts.
Cafcass said particular pressures had afflicted the South Yorkshire and Humber with a 23% rise in public law cases in October to November alongside Covid-related staffing absences.
A spokesperson said: “The result has been insufficient capacity to safely absorb all new applications received. In South Yorkshire and Humber only 54% of public law work is being allocated within three working days and we have no other option but to clear capacity to prioritise this.”
Extending prioritisation to other regions not ruled out
The spokesperson added: “We continue to review the need for prioritising allocation of work in other areas of the country and will be working with our partners over the coming weeks to find solutions that may prevent this from arising.
“However, due to continuing demand and possible staff absences (which we cannot predict) we cannot discount that we may need to use the practice prioritisation in other areas.”
Nagalro, the professional body representing FCAs, said the prioritisation plan would result in the courts delaying proceedings until cases could be allocated to an FCA or cases taking place without being informed by the child’s wishes or feelings. This, it said, was contrary to the UK’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, article 12 of which provides for the child’s voice to be heard in judicial proceedings.
The organisation said the decision was the consequence of “years of underinvestment” in a family courts system that was already struggling before the pandemic, but also questioned whether Cafcass had done all it could to manage the pressures on it, particularly by making use of self-employed FCAs.
Nagalro said: “Our members tell us that, in a number of cases, Cafcass has made decisions to ‘decommission’ experienced self-employed practitioners, or created a situation where a self-employed practitioner has felt they have no option but to resign.
Dispute over role of self-employed practitioners
“We have recently had discussions with practitioners, with many decades of experience, who have been forced out of Cafcass because they were unwilling to accept cases (usually child arrangement orders) where they did not have the requisite knowledge and experience, even though they had a lifetime’s knowledge of complex and demanding care proceedings.”
This was rejected by Cafcass. A spokesperson said: “We have not de-accredited anyone that works in the South Yorkshire and Humberside. Conversely, we have been recruiting to increase the number of associates in this area.”
She added self-employed practitioners were engaged on the bases of the high standard of their work, flexibility in taking on public and private law work and ability to absorb higher caseloads in busier times.
“Where we have removed associates from our accreditation system it has invariably been for more than one of these stated expectations,” the spokesperson added.
Napo, the biggest trade union represented at Cafcass, said that the organisation had “no choice” but to introduce the prioritisation model, however, it agreed with Nagalro that a “workload crisis” predated the pandemic, and the new policy risked worsening mounting delays for children.
Reliance on staff goodwill
It said: “The organisation has long been reliant on the good will of staff to manage its ever increasing workloads. Moving to a prioritisation protocol was suggested before Covid became an issue. The Covid crisis has exacerbated the workload crisis with enormous backlogs from lockdown.”
Napo said Cafcass had been “denied resources for 10 years”, leading to recruitment and retention problems that, with a public sector pay freeze looming in 2021-22, were “likely to get worse before [they get] better” and that the organisation needed “significant investment to get back on its feet”.
The government has provided Cafcass with an extra £3.4m to help it respond to the impact of Covid.
On the day that Cafcass announced its prioritisation policy, justice minister Alex Chalk, in response to a parliamentary question, said: “Cafcass continues to experience high levels of demand for its services while managing a rise in the number of open cases due to a reduction in case disposals.
“The Ministry of Justice has allocated an additional £3.4m this year to help Cafcass meet these challenges. Cafcass has put in place a protocol to enable it, where necessary, to prioritise cases in local service areas so that it can continue to meet the needs of the most vulnerable children and families.”
How prioritisation model works
Cafcass’s prioritisation matrix divides cases into four groups. In South Yorkshire and Humber, cases in the first two will be allocated to FCAs and those in groups three and four left unallocated.
- Group 1 includes: emergency protection orders, interim care and supervision order applications, termination or application for contact with child in care, deprivation of liberty, recovery orders, secure accommodation orders, placement orders or leave to oppose adoption orders (and adoption order appeals), private law cases where there is a possibility of public law or child protection involvement, private law High Court cases, rule 16.4 cases (where children are made party to private law proceedings) in which interim arrangements are unsafe and there is no local authority involvement, forced marriage protection orders and female genital mutilation orders.
- Group 2 includes: appeals, removal from jurisdiction cases, section 7 welfare reports advised by Cafcass, rule 16.4 cases which have been risk assessed and there is no local authority involvement, child assessment orders and enforcement orders within six months of previous ones where no new safeguarding allegations have been made.
- Group 3 includes: parental orders, some discharge of care/placement/special guardianship orders (others fall into group 1), child arrangements applications disputing amount of contact only, section 7 reports not advised or discussed with Cafcass where no identified safeguarding issues, section 7 reports ordered with fact-finding scheduled (with allocation considered thereafter), 16.4 cases where the local authority is involved, private law special guardianship applications where there is an allocated social worker, orders for addendum reports within 12 months of previous section 7 report, applictions from extended family who require leave to apply and orders which likely require referral to domestic abuse perpetrator programmes or child contect intervention programmes where such services have limited or no availability.
- Group 4 includes: child arrangements applications where there is an allocated social worker, eduction supervision orders, family assistance orders, monitoring orders, enquiries from foreign courts, unpaid work enquiries, cases suitable for mediation and specific issues including name/school changes.