Dated: 24/10/2011 Key Contact: Emma Pearmaine
The management of the Government’s Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) were under the microsope at October’s annual general meeting of NAPO, the Trade Union and Professional Association for Family Court and Probation Staff.
Attendees of the AGM, held in Eastbourne, heard from a panel of experts which included the Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, alongside Emma Pearmaine and Emma Hopkins of Simpson Millar LLP.
In her presentation, Emma Pearmaine introduced Simpson Millar’s Family law department and explained its relationship with NAPO’s Family Court Section (FCS).
Among the fruits of this partnership are discounted legal services to NAPO members for Divorce & Family Law, Education Law, Healthcare Law, Social Care, Consumer Disputes, Holiday Claims and Financial Planning.
CAFCASS, a public body accountable to the Department of Education, advises family courts in England on what it believes to be in the best interests of individual children. It helps decide a number of public and private law matters, from representing children who are the subject of applications for social services’ care proceedings, to cases where estranged parents cannot agree on their children’s arrangements.
CAFCASS officers have been under huge pressure in recent years with an increase of private law application by some 40,000 per year and care applications up 35% since the sad Baby Peter story broke. The way that the limited resources available have been applied by management and the huge case loads of individual officers has resulted in significant delays in the preparation of critical Section 7 CAFCASS reports in private law cases, a shortcoming which is affecting the service that solicitors can offer their clients.
One family lawyer said that extensions of the filing date for reports are being constantly requested. “I know this isn’t the fault of individual officers, but it is difficult to make clients understand this and they get very frustrated and distressed.”
“Unfortunately our experience is that in almost every case where a Section 7 report is ordered to be filed within 12 to 16 weeks, at least 1 extension of time is requested by CAFCASS,” said Emma Hopkins. “I spoke with a client recently where a Section 7 report was ordered on 1 June, after proceedings had already been ongoing for over 12 months. After 2 extensions, the report is now due on 26 October.”
In fact, the CAFCASS officer concerned had been allocated another 24 cases in the same week, all at the earliest stage of process and suggesting overwork was taking its toll.
“A number of very good officers have left the service in our area,” Emma noted. “In other areas agency workers are being employed. They prepare a report but then are not available to answers any questions that may arise or attend the review hearing.
“In many areas it seems cases are allocated in name only to meet management and government targets, but are then reshuffled several times before any work is undertaken on the report itself.”
Emma Pearmaine agreed with her colleague that CAFCASS is under-resourced. “This has a negative effect on the service CAFCASS can offer on the front line,” she said. “It is also having a negative effect on the service my department can offer to our family clients. It is extending the duration of the case and increasing costs, and even more importantly it is having a massive emotional impact on clients and their children.
“The failure of government to properly address the needs of CAFCASS is undermining faith in the family justice system as a whole.”