Pre-court social worker-guardian meetings have potential to improve care proceedings, finds study

However, longer pilot will be needed to evaluate whether practitioner meetings prior to case management hearings can meet DfE's objective of curbing case backlogs, says report

Two social workers meeting
Photo: Delmaine Donson/ Stock

Pre-court meetings between children’s social workers and Cafcass guardians have the potential to improve the care proceedings process, a pilot study has concluded.

However, a longer, forthcoming pilot will be needed to assess whether the meetings can curb current case backlogs. According to Cafcass, the average length of time it worked with families in these cases from July to September 2023 was 44 weeks, well above the 26-week target for the duration of proceedings.

Drive to reduce care proceedings delays

Reducing delay is the intended outcome of the meetings between practitioners before the case management hearing (CMH), which were tested over 10 weeks last autumn by 22 councils and local Cafcass teams in the Department for Education (DfE) commissioned scoping pilot.

This is also the judiciary’s ambition through its relaunch of the public law outline (PLO) last year.

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It takes place on 24 April 2024, from 12noon-1pm, and will be delivered by experienced family lawyer Bruce Tregoning.

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The CMH – which is supposed to take place between day 12 and day 18 of the care proceedings process – identifies the main issues in the case and sets the timetable.

Reducing need for expert assessments

The DfE’s thinking is that meeting the social worker before the CMH would improve the guardian’s understanding of the local authority’s work with the family and its rationale for the timing of the application and the order sought.

This may then reduce the uncertainty that leads to the commissioning of expert assessments, which is one of the leading causes of delay to care proceedings.

The scoping pilot, during which 108 pre-CMH meetings were carried out, was too short to test the impact on delay. Instead, Research in Practice, which delivered the pilot, examined the effectiveness of the process, in its evaluation report, published earlier this month.

Inconsistent practice

It said that, while having early conversations between children’s social workers and guardians was regarded as good, standard practice, in some sites, these were happening only inconsistently or not at all prior to the pilot.

Where they were taking place consistently, the pilot provided the opportunity to formalise the process and providing structure, though some participants felt there was a risk of duplication.

Pilot sites reported challenges in scheduling meetings in the short window between the application and the CMH, particularly given competing demands on social workers’ and guardians’ time.

This was made easier when the courts scheduled the CMH as close as possible to day 18 of the care proceedings process, there was early allocation of the case to the guardian and there was administrative support for practitioners in arranging the meeting.

Improving relationships and information sharing

Meetings were generally facilitated – usually by a local authority manager or leader – which participants said kept discussions focused. In some cases, other professionals also attended, and there were concerns from some participants that meetings were resource heavy.

Participants and pilot leads reported that the meetings were helpful in building relationships and sharing information between the social worker and guardian.

Council representatives said it was an opportunity for social workers to elaborate on what they had set out in evidence, including in relation to the child’s lived experience, the work done so far, including during pre-proceedings, and the rationale for the application.

Guardians reported coming away more informed about these issues and how well the wider family network had been involved in seeking to resolve issues of concern.

Pilot leads reported an openness from local authorities to being challenged by the guardian, with “robust social work discussions” providing the opportunity to improve the plan for the child.

Debate over whether guardians should share views

There was more debate over whether guardians should share their views on the local authority’s plan in the meeting, which happened in some cases but not others.

Local authority representatives said knowing the guardian’s initial views was helpful in preparing for court and prompting further enquiries.

For example, if the guardian said that they were unlikely to support the child’s removal but might recommend a mother and baby unit, this would enable the council to make enquiries as to availability.

Where this did not happen, council participants reported that “the meeting felt frustrating, and it was difficult to see the purpose or progress”.

However, Cafcass representatives reported that some guardians feared that their preliminary views would be taken as final, even though these may change.

Potential to improve proceedings

Participants reported that the pilot was too short to evaluate the impact of the meeting on the CMH itself. However, Research in Practice said that feedback indicated that the pre-CMH meeting had the potential to:

  • Improve practitioners’ preparedness for the CMH.
  • Improve the likelihood that further assessments directed by the judge at the CMH are necessary and proportionate and reduce the changes of them repeating work already undertaken by the council.
  • Improve the likelihood that cases are fully timetabled to an issues resolution hearing (IRH) at the CMH.

On the back of its report, Research in Practice called for pre-CMH meetings to be tested over at least six months, in a wider pool of local authorities with a “robust” evaluation of their impact on the CMH and, by extension, the duration of proceedings.

DfE planning longer pilot

The DfE is now tendering for an organisation to deliver a one-year pilot of pre-CMH meetings, which will run from April 2024 to March 2025.

In response to the report, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said the duration of care proceedings currently “does not serve children’s best interests and ADCS welcomes all efforts to improve the process and make it less adversarial”.

Helen Lincoln, chair of the ADCS families, communities and young people policy committee said the evaluation “outlines a number of positive developments from the pilot, such as building better relationships and sharing of knowledge”.

Reduction in number of care applications

She also pointed to other “positive developments” such as the impact of pre-proceedings work in reducing the number of applications for care and supervision orders.

From April 2023 to January 2024, Cafcass received 9,410 new care applications, 585 (5.9%) fewer than in the same period in 2022-23.

Lincoln added: “This demonstrates what can be achieved but we need government to commit greater investment in the system so that all areas can benefit from what works if we are to see lasting change.”

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2 Responses to Pre-court social worker-guardian meetings have potential to improve care proceedings, finds study

  1. Pauline O'Reggio March 14, 2024 at 10:07 am #

    The process allows social workers and the guardian to identify possible conflicts and what needs to happen before the final hearing, everyone is part of the meeting.

    Sometimes discussions between the social worker, guardian, or team manager may take place on an individual basis therefore leaving either the social worker or team manager out of the discussion this can lead to confusion and conflict. Often phone calls with the guardian are not planned, and the social worker and team manager may not have had the opportunity to discuss a case in detail therefore information given may not be concise.

    New information may come to light from the social workers’ inquiries/assessments which may require changes to the decision, the process allows everyone to challenge the plan without having lengthy cross-examinations at the final hearing, less conflict between the guardian and local authority.

    The parent’s legal representative can be transparent with parents about the issues and what is expected so there is no misunderstanding, less delay, and a more professional approach rather than patchy information between professionals.

    The process may appear time-consuming however there should be no surprises, it is a planned process safer for the child, parent, social worker, team, and guardian because everyone takes responsibility and is clear about the issues to be addressed at the final hearing.

  2. Pauline O'Reggio March 22, 2024 at 10:26 pm #

    The public often belivie social workers remove children at any opportunity and are the only ones formalising a plan for the child,this is not the case.There is a lengthy process which needs to take place before a child can be removed,during proceedings and after.The local authority must provide serval statements clearly identifying what the risk to the child is, what interventions/support has been offered to the family to safeguard the child, the likelihood of the child suffering significant harm if they were to remain within the family / family network.

    Prior and during proceedings the social worker is making numerous enquiries,information gathering to inform assessments to support the court in making a decision in respect of the child.Only the courts can make the decision to remove a child based on information presented to the court. The local authorty can remove a child if they belive the child will be at immediate significant harm ,then they can apply for an emergency order to remove the child.The police can remove on an emergency protection order.

    My point is,there are a number of legal procedures the local authority must comply with before final decisions in respect of the child are made.These meetings bring legal clarity and sharing of information between professionals to enable appropriate plan’s to meet the child and family’s individual needs.(No one family is the same)

    Surely as part of care proceedings this requires regular and meaningful meetings with all professionals to ensure safe decisions are made to protect everyone. These meetings should be a priority.The meeting ensures every aspect of the child’s needs are addressed,the family’s network and ability to safeguard the child is assessed by all professionals,the social worker and team manager are clear about the issues and what the plans will be.The guardian is aware of the plans so they can make challenges before the final hearing.

    These are my views has someone who as worked in care proceedings for 43 year’s.

    I can not understand why this is time consuming,should it not be a necessary process?

    For newly qualified social workers will this process not also give clear structured practice and understanding of the process?