Cafcass has asked the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for more funding to hire additional staff until the end of the financial year as it tackles a backlog of cases and faces a £2.7m overspend.
The MoJ has rebuffed Cafcass’s request for now, emphasising that it already increased funding for the organisation a few months ago.
Cafcass’s call for more resource came as it extended its prioritisation protocol – under which it defers allocating “less urgent” private law cases to family court advisers (FCAs) for up to 20 weeks – to two more areas to help it to deal with continuing high caseloads.
And the organisation reported at its latest open board meeting this month that its social workers’ absences due to mental ill health had increased by around a third since the start of the pandemic, with a union saying staff were at “breaking point”.
The organisation continues to face increased caseloads and a longer duration of family court proceedings due to the impact of Covid-19.
The MoJ increased its funding for Cafcass by 3.4% to £135.7m in 2021-22, to help it to process record numbers of outstanding cases and hire more social workers.
Cafcass now employs 110 more permanent FCAs than in March 2020 and has 98 agency FCAs, compared to between 14 and 30 prior to the pandemic.
But it said staff turnover had increased and it could not allocate work as quickly to new FCAs as they built up their learning and experience.
Meanwhile, unions representing Cafcass workers have requested a 3% pay increase for the current financial year, the family courts body said, with no increase in central government funding to pay for this in the context of the 2021-22 public sector pay freeze.
Cafcass reported at the meeting that it has around 10,000 more children in its system than it did before the UK’s first national lockdown in March 2020, a quarter of whom are being handled by managers and supervisors instead of frontline FCAs.
Of the rest, it has allocated around 4,200 children’s cases to permanent FCAs and 3,000 to agency staff, with 262 children’s cases being held by practice supervisors pending allocation to FCAs in regions where the private law prioritisation scheme applies.
Cafcass said this allocation of cases to managers and supervisors had reduced its management capacity and it needed funding from the MoJ to hire more social workers to take these cases on urgently.
Longer-term, the organisation aims to reduce the additional 10,000 children back down entirely to pre-pandemic numbers.
Need to restore management capacity
“Whilst we are working out ways to do this, we need to ask MoJ to resource us for the number of staff we have now but in addition to help us to restore our management capacity so that lead allocations are not with practice supervisors or service managers and the additional work on duty is allocated work on duty is allocated to new FCAs,” Cafcass chief executive Jacky Tiotto said in her report to this month’s board meeting.
Tiotto also appealed to the MoJ at the board meeting to help it to retain staff by allowing it to increase their pay and compete more effectively with local authorities.
“If we cannot be given some flexibility on how we retain people, we will go under. There is no doubt about it,” she said.
“In the end, people need money to live. And when their friends and neighbours working two boroughs away are earning £5,000 more, and they can work at home and they have the same kind of caseloads, we aren’t attractive anymore and we have really, really got to focus on this.
“It cannot go into the bureaucratic line of delay because we need to compete and we need to compete now.”
An MoJ spokesperson said: “We provided Cafcass with additional funding this financial year to ease the impact of the pandemic and enable the hiring of extra staff.”
Open cases remain high
Cafcass received 3,623 private law cases in September concerning 5,327 children, a moderate rise on the previous month but more than 500 cases fewer than a year earlier. It received 1,290 public law cases in September, more than 200 fewer than a year earlier.
But Cafcass’s overall number of open private law cases at the end of September was 22,265, an increase of 106 on the year and much higher than prior to March 2020, when cases were below 20,000.
Meanwhile, Cafcass’s number of open public law cases was 13,596 in September, a decline of 309 on the year but higher than pre-pandemic levels of below 13,000.
For private law case work before first hearings, FCAs’ average caseloads are 47 sets of proceedings, compared to a target of 40. FCAS are holding 21.6 sets of proceedings on average for work after first hearings.
Cafcass forecasts that it will overspend by £2.7m in the current financial year but was underspending as of August 2021, with management accounts showing a spend of £57.4m against year-to-date budget of £58.2m.
Workers at ‘breaking point’
Trade union Napo, which represents family court staff, said it was concerned about a “rapidly deteriorating picture for Cafcass” and that the additional money it had requested from the Treasury was only “crisis management” and not a long-term solution.
It said that excessive workloads were negatively impacting on the health and wellbeing of staff, with some workers unable to take time off in lieu for overtime and “effectively working many additional hours for free”.
Napo general secretary Ian Lawrence said: “The minister must now intervene and make strong representations to the Treasury as a matter of urgency.
“The additional funds will only pay for agency staff until the end of the year, it isn’t a long-term strategy.
“Cafcass offers a vital service to children and families, and it cannot function for much longer in its current state. Our members are at breaking point.”
Mental illness absences increase
The continuing pressures on Cafcass’ staff appears to have contributed to its social workers having to take significantly more time off work due to mental health issues than before the pandemic.
In September, 17.8% of Cafcass’s social workers sickness absence was linked to mental ill health, up from 13.5% in February 2020. Overall sickness absences have increased in this time from 9.6 12-month average working days lost in February 2020 up to 9.9 in September 2021.
Cafcass said at its meeting that it was preparing a report on its workers’ sickness absences to better understand the trend and then recommend changes to the organisation’s board.
The organisation is also receiving more complaints than before – currently 150-200 per month that require investigating, up from around 100 a year ago.
Prioritisation work extended
Cafcass is now deferring its allocation of “less urgent” private law cases to FCAs in Coventry and Northampton for up to 20 weeks due to high caseloads, having introduced similar protocols in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester already.
It is also considering introducing its “prioritisation protocol” triage service in West Yorkshire, Cheshire and Merseyside, South Yorkshire and Humberside and London.
Cafcass introduced the protocol 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, before extending it to Greater Manchester.
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.
Jack Cordery, director of operations at Cafcass, told the board meeting that the prioritisation work was already having “the desired effect” of reducing the number of cases held by service managers in the West Midlands.
“The pressure on them had reduced enormously,” he said. “And they’ve been freed up to undertake the work that we need them to do, and actually that children and families need them to do.”