Cafcass will defer allocating “less urgent” private law cases to family court advisers (FCAs) in Greater Manchester for up to 20 weeks because its capacity has become “saturated”.
The move extends the family courts body’s policy of prioritising cases, which is already in place across six areas of the West Midlands, and reflects significant pressures on practitioners caused by rising demand and delays in processing family court cases due to the pandemic.
Greater Manchester becomes the third region in which Cafcass has prioritised cases in the light of these pressures, after it introduced a similar system in South Yorkshire and the Humber in November last year, though this is no longer in place in that region.
Nagalro, the professional body that represents children’s guardians, family court advisers and independent social workers, said the latest extension meant children were not receiving a service that Cafcass was legally required to give them.
Cafcass introduced its “prioritisation protocol” triage service in Birmingham, the Black Country, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire and Herefordshire in July, only initially allocating private law cases it deemed urgent or where there were significant risks to the child.
Under the system, a practice supervisor manages other cases that Cafcass and the courts assess as lower risk in an “allocation hub”, where they are reviewed at least every fortnight and held for a maximum of 20 weeks before being allocated to an FCA.
Cafcass said it had helped to stem the “unsustainable increase” in FCAs’ caseloads and “smooth the flow” of allocations to them.
And it said the protocol had also helped to bring down the number of cases held by service managers and practice supervisors in the West Midlands.
“This means that more time has been freed up to undertake management oversight, supervision and support of family court advisers,” it said.
‘Demand pressures’ in Greater Manchester
At the time of the protocol’s introduction in the West Midlands, Cafcass said it would look to introduce similar measures in areas where there were “significant risks to the welfare of the child”.
It is now implementing the policy in Greater Manchester because of “demand pressures caused by a combination of the increase in requests for reports in private law, the backlog resulting from the pandemic and longer time it is taking for the courts to dispose of cases”.
Cafcass said that because of these pressures, the “capacity to allocate private law cases in Greater Manchester has become saturated”.
“The allocation hubs opened under prioritisation assist in ensuring that the most urgent cases are allocated and the less urgent cases have appropriate management oversight, providing families and courts with a single point of contact,” the family courts body said.
Open cases remain high
Cafcass received 3,386 private law cases in August concerning 5,130 children, the lowest amount since May 2020. Meanwhile, it received 1,259 public cases in August, the lowest since January.
But Cafcass’ overall number of open private cases at the end of August was 28,798, the highest since May and an increase of 3,432 cases when compared to August 2020.
Cafcass’s number of open public law cases also increased, to 14,799, in August, the highest since April and an increase of 677 cases compared to a year earlier.
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. In July, Cafcass said it had employed an additional 168 people since April 2020, with a further 86 expected by the end of this month, including 75 FCAs.
‘Children not getting legally required service’
Nagalro said it regretted that the extension of the protocol to Greater Manchester was necessary.
“These are children in private law proceedings that are not getting the allocation of a service that Cafcass is legally required to give them,” said acting vice-chair Carole Littlechild.
“This is a procedure which now seems to be expanding beyond their original declaration of keeping the prioritisation protocol within a defined geographical area.”