Story updated 20 May 2022
Cafcass is in “serious jeopardy” in relation to its social work staffing due to government pay constraints, its chief executive has warned.
The family courts body is losing staff to local authorities who are able to pay more and is struggling to compete because of limits on its ability to increase wages, Jacky Tiotto told its most recent board meeting.
Tiotto said that Cafcass was continuing to lose about 20 social workers a month; in January, she warned that this could double to 40 unless its sponsoring government department – the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) – gives it more freedom to set pay.
At the time, inflation was running at 5.5% but it has since risen to 9%, in April, and Tiotto warned that the wider cost-of-living crisis was starting to take its toll.
“We are receiving a letter most days from a manager which says someone who is very experienced who wants to stay at Cafcass is leaving because they can get more money locally,” she told the meeting last month. “They don’t want to leave but they are. That is becoming more acute as people’s bills and lives become more expensive.”
Pay for Cafcass social work staff stayed still in 2021-22, because of a government-wide pay freeze, while council social workers received a 1.75% rise.
This year, the Treasury has given government departments the freedom to raise overall pay bills by 2% but this includes any increments for career progression, as well as cost-of-living increases. Departments are allowed to increase this to 3%, but only if they can make a strong business case, based on progress against ” key long-term priorities”.
“We are an arms-length part of government which means we are very restricted in making pay and reward settlements that enable us to compete in a competitive social work marketplace,” said Tiotto.
It would not be wrong to say we are in serious jeopardy in relation to our social work staff.”
She added: “We can’t be in the position of having our pay as uncompetitive as it is. We need to get a business case through. We are losing 20 social workers a month…It’s one of the things that keeps us awake at night.”
Cafcass and the main union for staff at the body, Napo, said they could not comment further because pay negotiations were ongoing.
An MoJ spokesperson referred to the increase in budget Cafcass has received over the past year, which has enabled it to increase staffing levels to deal with pandemic-induced family court pressures.
“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 so they can hire staff to ease the impact of the pandemic,” the spokesperson said.
The MoJ increased Cafcass’s 2021-22 budget by £2.3m in January, to £138m, to tackle staff shortages and manage case backlogs, taking its budget for that year to 8% above the £127.8m originally allocated for 2020-21.
Cafcass said that the MoJ had provided a revenue budget of £138.7m for 2022-23.
Caseloads down but still high
As of the end of April, Cafcass had 34,659 open cases, down 7.8% on the 37,611 in April 2021, reflecting a 6.9% fall in new proceedings in 2021-22 across public and private law.
Caseloads for family court advisers (FCAs) have also decreased in the past 12 months, which Cafcass attributed to increased investment in staff and senior managers’ decision to protect frontline caseloads.
Tiotto told the board that caseloads for work after a first hearing had fallen from 26 to just under 22. However, she pointed out that one in four FCAs were carrying caseloads above recommended levels (25 sets of proceedings) in non-early intervention teams (EITs), while this was true of half of practitioners in the EITs.
Cafcass has also pointed out that open case numbers are 15% higher than they were at the start of the pandemic, in March 2020, when there were just over 30,000.
Less oversight of practice
Protecting staff caseloads has involved giving work to managers, Tiotto said, with practice supevisors carrying 15.9 sets of proceedings on average, close to a full caseload.
“What happens less is oversight of practice and we’ve had to reduce our expectations of what managers do, for example, overseeing case closure,” she added. “All of the stretch and improvement we want to do, we have to balance against people holding caseloads.”
Besides case numbers, individual cases were also taking longer and in some cases requiring more work, she said.
Despite the overall reduction in private law cases in 2021-22, the volume of section 7 reports on children’s welfare requested of Cafcass by the courts increased by 8.6% (1,786 more reports).
Longer cases leading to more work
A Cafcass spokesperson said that, while the proportion of cases which required at least one section 7 reports had remained stable, there had been an increase in court requests for addendum (additional) reports. The number of these reports had risen by 11.4% during 2021-22.
“Addendums are more likely to be a needed for updated information in proceedings that are delayed,” said the spokesperson. “There has been a significant increase in the durations of family proceedings. We have an ongoing programme of work with our partners to address these issues for children and families.”
Family court backlogs have seen the average durations of cases continue to rise. Despite a target for care proceedings cases to be completed within 26 weeks, Cafcass said they had continued to average around 45 weeks, as has been the case since autumn 2021.
Private law proceedings that went beyond the first hearing took 54 weeks on average to conclude, while rule 16.4 cases, for particularly vulnerable children for whom a Cafcass guardian is appointed, averaged 96 weeks in April, up from 92 weeks in January.
Children made ‘very anxious’ by delays
Tiotto’s board report said delays in these cases made the children involved “very anxious, with the ongoing exposure to unresolved conflict in which they are embroiled, impacting on all aspects of their development and wellbeing”.
Cafcass is planning to work with the judiciary to address the length of these cases, potentially by having a structured case management approach in which a final hearing date is agreed at an early stage.
Cafcass is continuing to delay the allocation of lower-priority private law work to FCAs in some areas, in order to manage case pressures.
The board meeting heard that one region, West Yorkshire, was no longer under the so-called prioritisation protocol, leaving four – covering the West Midlands and surrounding areas, South Yorkshire and Humberside, Greater Manchester and Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk – that were. However, one other areas – private law in London – was at risk of entering the system.
Under the protocol, lower-priority cases are held by a practice supervisor in an allocation hub until they can be allocated to FCAs.
To also help manage pressures, Cafcass has set up post-assessment hubs, where cases in which there is no hearing listed or none for six weeks, are held by a practice supervisor after then FCA has carried out an assessment and filed a report. A Cafcass spokesperson said the post-assessment hubs had, in some areas, prevented or delayed the need for prioritisation.
Gap in provision of perpetrator programmes
The board meeting also heard that there would be a gap in the provision of domestic abuse perpetrator programmes (DAPPs) through the family courts next year.
Cafcass, on behalf of MoJ, funds the provision of DAPPs, in cases where the court has found a parent in a private law case to have been abusive and ordered they attend a programme to change their behaviour and reduce harm to children.
The MoJ has decided that more comprehensive provision of DAPPs is needed, meaning existing services will cease on 31 March 2023, and the board meeting heard that new provision would not be up and running until at least the middle of 2024.
Cafcass said that, given that programmes take nine months to complete, the family courts would need to stop ordering parents to attend by the end of next month.
DAPPs have been badly affected by Covid-19 because of the need for them to be carried out in person, with provision stopping altogether in some areas.
However, problems were identified prior to the pandemic, notably in the 2020 government-commissioned report on assessing the risk of harm to children and parents in private law cases.
This found a postcode lottery in the provision of Cafcass-funded DAPPs, and raised concerns about the use of other provision that was not subject to the same standards.
Cafcass said that, in the coming months, guidance would be produced for alternative options in cases where the family courts would have ordered a parent to attend a DAPP.
The MoJ also said interim arrangements would be in place while the new programme was being developed.
A Cafcass spokesperson said: “In the absence of domestic abuse perpetrator programmes being available for nearly two years during the pandemic, and in some areas not at all, guidance has been developed for Cafcass family court advisers (FCAs) to support their decision making and recommendations to court about whether family time can be made safe and beneficial for the child.
“The commissioning of these programmes is a matter for the Ministry of Justice and not Cafcass. Our priority on behalf of children is to make sure that our recommendations to the family court are well–reasoned and set out clearly how we have assessed the harm that children have experienced and any continuing risks that arise from contact. The wishes and feelings of the children whom we represent will be clearly set out in our reports.”