Article amended to clarify Cafcass’ policy on public law cases
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has increased Cafcass’s funding for the current financial year by £2.3m to help it tackle staff shortages and a case backlog.
The move takes the family court body’s budget to £138m, 8% higher than the £127.8m it was initially allocated in 2020-21, as it seeks to respond to pressures arising from the pandemic.
Alongside the funding increase, Cafcass has extended its policy of deferring allocating less urgent private law cases to social workers, to a further five court areas, taking the total to 14.
Second request for extra cash
Cafcass requested extra funding from the MoJ for the second time in the past year after revealing in October that it was facing a £2.7m overspend, amid high caseloads, arising from increases in the length of court proceedings, and rising staff turnover. .
The MoJ originally increased Cafcass’s 2021-22 budget to £135.7m in May last year, having previously boosted the organisation’s 2020-21 resource from £127.8m to £131.2m.
Cafcass said the latest £2.3m increase would be used to tackle case backlogs, a rise in the number of orders for private law reports the impact of a rise in staff sickness, recruitment and retention difficulties and additional demands on frontline managers.
An MoJ spokesperson said: “Cafcass plays a vital role ensuring children’s voices are at the heart of the family court which is why we have provided them with additional funding this financial year so they can hire more staff to ease the impact of the pandemic.”
Cafcass is still discussing its 2022-23 funding allocation with the MoJ.
Prioritisation work expanded
To help ease demand pressures in private law cases, Cafcass has expanded the use of its ‘prioritisation protocol’ to Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire and Humberside, on top of nine existing court areas.
Under the system, a practice supervisor manages 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 a family court adviser (FCA).
Cafcass introduced the protocol in Birmingham, the Black Country, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire and Herefordshire in July last year,, before extending it to Greater Manchester, Coventry and Northampton
The 14 courts now prioritising cases are in six of Cafcass’ 19 service areas across the country.
A Cafcass spokesperson said it was necessary to extend use of the protocol to prevent high numbers of children’s cases held by FCAs and service managers from affecting its quality of practice.
They said the protocol had helped to manage FCA caseloads and lower the number of duty cases held by service managers, giving them more time to oversee, supervise and support FCAs.
But they said prioritisation was a last resort, only introduced when other measures had not worked quickly enough.
Cafcass does not use the prioritisation protocol for public law applications.
The pressures on the family courts, including those related to the pandemic, have led to significant increases in the length of care proceedings, which averaged 45 weeks in July to September 2021, up four weeks from the same quarter in 2020. Just 24% were completed within the 26-week limit, down 5 percentage points on 2020 levels.
Trade union Napo, which represents family court staff, said the prioritisation protocol caused “considerable delay for children and families”.
“It is widely acknowledged within Cafcass and the MoJ that allocation hubs are sticking plasters and will not resolve the workload crisis in the immediate or long-term,” a spokesperson for the union said.
Napo said Cafcass staff had been “already on the verge of not being able to allocate all private law applications promptly” before 2020 but the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated difficulties within the family justice system.
It said there was now “a deteriorating and unmanageable workload crisis within Cafcass”, with “fewer disposals than before the pandemic with the system opening more work than it is closing”.
Staff working overtime
Napo found that almost all its members were routinely working overtime last year to deal with excessive caseloads.
In a survey of its membership from 11 to 28 June last year, 88% of staff said they had worked extra hours in the previous four weeks that they had not been able to take back, with 89% of these saying it was a frequent occurrence.
Most staff surveyed did not count how many extra hours they worked, but of those that did, the average number of hours owed was 25, going up to 70 in some cases.
“Napo has raised this unacceptable and unsustainable practice with Cafcass who has responded that they do not have the resources to pay overtime,” a spokesperson said.
The union also said an increasing number of social work employees within Cafcass were absent due to both sickness and mental ill health.
Cafcass staff also faced a pay freeze in 2021-2022, despite unions calling for a 3% increase to their salaries.
In response to Napo’s comments, a Cafcass spokesperson said: “Unfortunately we are only able to make overtime payments in exceptional circumstances. We are acutely aware that a number of our colleagues work more hours than they are contracted to.
“Their continued dedication to keeping our service going through the pandemic is nothing short of remarkable. We continue to work with our trade unions and other partners to explore ways in which we can ensure our colleagues can continue to deliver work safely and maintain a good work and life balance. These include negotiating resources to employ additional social work staff, and using the prioritisation protocol in areas where workloads have reached unsustainable levels. We are starting to see reductions in average caseloads but in many service areas pressure remains too high.”
Nagalro, which represents family court advisers, said it regretted that the extra funding the MOJ provided to Cafcass in May last year had not reduced the need for the body to prioritise work.
“We can only hope that this latest additional funding will allow for more families to be provided with an allocated worker,” a Nagalro spokesperson said.
“The effect on the children involved […] is that many children are not getting the service to which they are entitled. The delays inevitably extend uncertainty and potential considerable stress for children in their families.”