Cafcass has implemented a process to prioritise and manage high workloads in areas covering Birmingham, the Black Country, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire and Herefordshire family courts due to what it called "unsustainable pressures" on the family justice system in the area.
The organisation said that, nationally, it was working with c10,500 more children (6,500 more cases) than it was at the beginning of the pandemic because of the reduced capacity of the courts to hear cases during this period and the associated impact on the caseloads of Family Court Advisers.
“Unchecked, these pressures will impact on the quality of practice and decision-making about children’s futures,” it warned.
The prioritisation protocol sets out the process for assessing which cases will be affected, how the permission of the family court will be sought to manage the work, and the arrangements for families and children to be made aware of and informed about the progress of their application.
Cafcass said the approach would involve the courts working with it to triage cases in private law proceedings on the basis of risk and capacity, as identified in the initial assessment (the safeguarding letter) that Cafcass files to the court.
All public law work will continue to be allocated in the normal way and within established timescales.
Cafcass said: “Our intention is to do all we can within our authority and available resources to restore our usual service times and prevent the need to prioritise in other areas. This will require continued intensive joint working with local and national partners given that the pandemic has accelerated pre-Covid pressures which have led to backlogs and extended length of proceedings for children and families because of the reduced ability of the courts to conclude cases.
“This is a system problem and we continue to work with our partners to restore our normal allocation process in these areas and to limit the number of other areas where we may need to implement the protocol. However, we are already in discussion with a number of local courts about the potential risks to our capacity to provide a service within normal timescales and we expect to activate the same processes in other areas in the weeks ahead.”
Cafcass Chief Executive, Jacky Tiotto said: “I have said publicly before that any decision which confirms and formalises delay for children and their families in respect of an outcome to their proceedings is among the most difficult to make. It means that they live longer with the impact of family conflict and the uncertainty about the future arrangements for them. However, our Family Court Advisers need time to develop strong relationships with children and families so they can understand their experiences and hopes for the future. It is critical that they have time to think and to make recommendations to court that can be clearly explained to the children and families with whom they are working. This work cannot be undertaken effectively if caseloads are unmanageable and there is no doubt that the quality of decision-making and amount of contact with children is reduced if they have too many cases.
“With demand in private law proceedings as high as it is at a time when the work is taking so much longer, there is a worrying inevitability about the saturation of the system. It is widely accepted that this pressure is going to continue for some months. We are doing everything within our authority and available resources to balance the demand for our service with the need to ensure safe caseloads and, thereby, the welfare of the children and families we serve. Implementing a process to prioritise the children who are in need of the most help most quickly, is an interim solution that will enable us to maintain this balance. I am sorry that we have not been able to identify a different solution with better outcomes for children and families. Cafcass, together with our partners, will take responsibility for the change that has to be found for the current situation.”