Cafcass in crisis as caseloads reach record levels
The year since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a truly pressured time for families, the tensions of which are being felt by the Family Courts, family law practitioners, and the experts such as Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service), who have traditionally been described as the ‘eyes and ears of the family courts’.
An evaluation of Cafcass one year on details, on one hand – professionals and courts having been pushed into the 21st century following the rapid shift to remote working, and on the other hand – the pandemic exacerbating cracks in an already overburdened and under-resourced system. Adjustments have meant long delays with listings – almost double the length of time for private cases to go through court, backlogs with reports, and a real difficulty in understanding timelines with individual cases.
The impact of the pandemic and ongoing heavy restrictions have not only directly put a strain on the legal system, but indirectly also. Working from home, home schooling and the ‘stay at home’ guidelines have forced couples and families to spend extended amounts of time together.
The statistics paint a bleak picture: as of 15th November 2020, around 9.6 million jobs had been furloughed in the UK as part of the government’s job retention scheme. Data from the Office for National Statistics has further shown unemployment levels rise over 20% between the months July and September 2020 compared to the previous year.
While for some this time has been treasured, for others the stress of living on the breadline, the strain on already failing relationships, and losing the support network of other parents and grandparents, has proved unbearable. The net effect of all of this in practice has been an increase in children disputes, placing additional pressure and increased demand on Cafcass.
During children dispute proceedings, Cafcass will be required to undertake safeguarding enquiries to ensure the child’s safety is not at risk, as recorded in the form of a safeguarding letter. At the First Hearing, the court will then determine whether the case is suitable for further intervention by Cafcass; for example, the court might order the preparation of a s.7 Welfare Report, especially when there is an alleged risk to the child. These reports are lengthy, take a considerable time to draft and involve the assigned officer working closely with all parties involved. They will have to witness contact (if taking place), interview parties and take out checks where necessary and appropriate.
Certainly, in the face of mounting workloads, and Covid-related staff absences, Cafcass reported in December 2020 that they had been forced to leave ‘lower priority’ cases unallocated until an adviser became available.
Without an advisor, hearings cannot proceed productively. Moreover, expediency and efficiency of proceedings becomes even more critical when dealing with children matters. To a young child a delay of even a few weeks can make adjustments more difficult and mean that any ordered changed must be introduced even more incrementally, if at all appropriate.
Indeed, to deal with the increasing demand, Cafcass has since boosted its full-time social worker numbers by 11% across the country to assist in ending the above-mentioned policy. However, Napo, the trade union that represents the staff at Cafcass have expressed concern that this is “not expected to ease the current workload”, with “further resources…needed to stabilise the service.”
It is encouraging that the Ministry of Justice has since agreed to £3.4 million of additional funding for 2020-1 to “ensure Cafcass has the staff and resources to deliver its vital work,” but whether this will enable the service to stabilise is doubtful – a long-term strategy to combat the delays and overbearing number of open cases is obvious and necessary.
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