Cafcass will defer allocating “less urgent” private law cases to family court advisers (FCAs) in six areas of the West Midlands for up to 20 weeks due to “unsustainable caseloads”.
The family courts body’s chief executive said the prioritisation policy would leave children in situations of family conflict for longer, but was necessary to deal with “unmanageable” workloads for its social workers and managers.
It has introduced a triage service in Birmingham, the Black Country, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire and Herefordshire, only allocating cases it deems urgent or where there are significant risks to the child initially.
A practice supervisor will manage other cases that Cafcass and the courts assess as lower risk in an “allocation hub”, where they will be reviewed at least every fortnight and held for a maximum of 20 weeks before being allocated to an FCA.
Cafcass introduced a similar system in South Yorkshire and the Humber in November last year and it is discussing with several local courts plans to prioritise cases where there are “significant risks to the welfare of the child” in other areas in the weeks ahead.
Chief executive Jacky Tiotto said that “any decision which confirms and formalises delay for children and their families in respect of an outcome to their proceedings is among the most difficult to make”.
“It means that they live longer with the impact of family conflict and the uncertainty about the future arrangements for them,” she added.
However, FCAs needed time to develop strong relationships with children and families to understand their experiences and make appropriate recommendations to the court, she said, adding: “This work cannot be undertaken effectively if caseloads are unmanageable and there is no doubt that the quality of decision-making and amount of contact with children is reduced if they have too many cases.”
Caseloads breaching thresholds
In a report to Cafcass’s board meeting earlier this month, Tiotto said that one in four FCAs were carrying caseloads above threshold – 40 for the early intervention team and 25 for work after a first hearing. At the same time, practice supervisors were carrying an average of 15 cases, close to a full caseload, which meant that “support and oversight at the frontline is almost completely diminished”.
The situation is the result of significant delays in processing family court cases due to the pandemic, meaning Cafcass practitioners are holding cases for longer. While it received a similar number of private law referrals in 2020-21 as 2019-20, the number of open private law cases ballooned from 21,118 in April 2020 to 29,779 in April 2021. Though it subsequently fell to 27,982 in June, this is well above monthly levels in previous years.
Cafcass’s number of open public law cases also increased, to 14,635 in June from 13,077 a year earlier, though this is lower than a peak of 14,974 in April.
More funding for more staff
The Ministry of Justice has increased Cafcass’s total resource budget in the last two financial years, by £3.4m in 2020-21 and a further £4.5m, to £135.7m, in 2020-21, to help it deal with increased caseloads.
Much of this has gone on hiring social workers, with an additional 168 people employed since April 2020, and a further another 86 expected by the end of September, including 75 FCAs. Cafcass is also employing 159 agency staff – in March 2020 it was engaging just 34 locum social workers. However, it is facing retention challenges, with 36 members of staff to leave by the end of September and the 12- month turnover rate having increased to 10.8% from 9.1% a year earlier.
Tiotto said demand on court capacity would likely remain high “for some months” and the triage work was an “interim solution” that would help to ensure “safe caseloads and, thereby, the welfare of the children and families we serve” during this period.
Cafcass said it was working with its partners to restore its normal allocation process in the areas currently affected and to limit the number of other regions where it will delay case processing.
“I am sorry that we have not been able to identify a different solution with better outcomes for children and families,” Tiotto added.
“Cafcass, together with our partners, will take responsibility for the change that has to be found for the current situation.”
The organisation will continue to allocate all public law work in the normal way and within established timescales, it said.
Napo, the trade union that represents staff at Cafcass, said it was “deeply concerning” to see the prioritisation process being introduced in another region.
“Cafcass is now in a workload crisis and requires urgent ministerial intervention. We said at the time it was announced that the additional funding being allocated to Cafcass was a drop in the ocean and was never going to solve the crisis in the long term,” said general secretary Ian Lawrence.
“A fully funded long term plan must now be developed if the service is to carry out its role effectively and sustainably.”