Cafcass has started prioritising the allocation of “less urgent” private law cases in London to help maintain safe workloads for its social workers.
The decision to institute the prioritisation protocol comes on the back of a 27% rise in the number of private law applications in the capital between April and July 2023, compared with the same period in 2022*.
The family courts body said the decision was also driven by the challenges it and partners faced in maintaining staffing levels and the impact of ongoing family court delays on workloads.
Private law cases generally involve decisions about arrangements for children’s residence, care or contact with parents.
In all private law applications, Cafcass carries out an initial welfare check about the child – known as the “safeguarding letter” – for the first court hearing.
The prioritisation protocol applies in the minority of cases where the family courts body is then asked to file a report about the child, generally under section 7 of the Children Act 1989, for the final hearing.
How prioritisation works
Under the protocol, an assistant service manager will determine which of these cases should be prioritised and allocate them to a family court adviser (FCA), while overseeing the rest within an allocation hub.
Cafcass said there would be “strict limits” on how long a child’s case would be held in the hub before being allocated to a practitioner. The protocol states that this should generally take place within 20 weeks.
This would be at least eight weeks before the practitioner would need to file their report to the court.
At the same time, Cafcass said it wanted to reduce report filing times for prioritised cases to 14 weeks.
Protocol ‘has helped manage caseloads’
The protocol, which does not apply to public law, was initiated in 2020 on the back of the pandemic and is currently also in use in Greater Manchester, Essex and Suffolk and Norfolk.
Cafcass said an evaluation of prioritisation found that caseloads for FCAs had reduced across prioritised areas.
It had also been accompanied by a drop in the number of cases held by practice supervisors, bolstering management and supervision capacity.
The family courts body said several areas that had previously used the protocol had been taken out of prioritisation and it anticipated that a further two areas would do so by the end of 2023.
Decision to prioritise ‘not taken lightly’
Cafcass chief executive Jacky Tiotto said: “The decision to activate our prioritisation protocol in London has not been taken lightly. Over the past two years, there has been a high degree of collaboration and support from local family court judges in maintaining the current system and preventing prioritisation.
“However, the rising number of private law family court applications and the additional work caused by delay has meant that we have had to make the difficult decision to activate our procedures to prioritise the most urgent work after the first hearing in private family law cases.”
Tiotto said she was “confident that with continuing collaboration and effective partnership, the action we are taking will help to ease some of the pressures we are all facing”.
Latest Cafcass case numbers
The decision follows the release of Cafcass’s latest monthly case statistics, which showed that:
- The number of new private law cases is up year on year, with the family court body receiving 16,613 such cases from April to August 2023, 2% higher than the same period in 2022.
- However, the number of open private law cases as of 31 August 2023 (19,298) was 4.5% down on 12 months previously.
- The number of new public law cases from April to August 2023 (6,710) is down 3.3% on the same period in 2022, with a 7.7% fall in the number of care or supervision order applications, to 4,743.
- The number of open public law cases as of 31 August 2023 was 12,197, down 11.2% on a year previously.
*This sentence has been amended.