This week we are looking at the role of the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (‘CAFCASS ‘) in family cases and how this may change in the future. By way of reminder, a while ago we wrote about the role of CAFCASS in our ‘who or what is CAFCASS’ blog. Recent guidance issued by CAFCASS suggests their involvement with families and the court system will change.
With effect from 1 July, CAFCASS issued specific guidance, with the approval of the President of the Family Division, on the use of their professional time to benefit children. The overall aim of the guidance is to reduce a Family Court Adviser’s time at unnecessary court hearings, limit the scope of s.7 reports and to focus their involvement on the child.
The guidance applies to public law (care) proceedings and private law children cases (disputes between parents or family members with connection to a child).
A copy of the full guidance can be read here. In short, the changes we expect to see as a result of the guidance are:
- Flexibility in care proceedings for the child’s guardian (often a CAFCASS officer) to present their initial findings in whichever format they can – i.e. whether it is a formal position statement, an initial case analysis, or simply oral evidence at a first hearing.
- Consideration and cooperation between CAFCASS and the Local Authority pre-proceedings of a community-based alternative to care proceedings for the child.
- Stricter use of the Family Court Adviser after the First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (‘FHDRA’) in private law cases. Whilst safeguarding letters and attendance at FHDRAs will not change, the streamlined use of CAFCASS post-FHDRA includes:-
- For cases where a guardian is appointed for the child in proceedings, the suggestion is for CAFCASS to lead a 3 or 4 session intervention with the child/family, or alternatively to prepare a Child Impact Assessment report.
- Traditional s.7 reports are likely to be phased out in favour of the Child Impact Assessment.
- Litigants, lawyers and the judiciary being clear on the face of an Order what specific work CAFCASS should do. General requests for reports should be avoided.
- The threshold for the Family Court Adviser being involved beyond the FHDRA will be focussed on concerns about significant child impact, not the parental dispute.
- Second or addendum reports should only be directed in exceptional cases. Where such a report is ordered, the reason should be expressed clearly on the face of the order.
- Attendance at court should be kept to a minimum.
The changes outlined above reinforce the Child Arrangements Programme which was introduced in 2014. In practice, we find that the resources available to CAFCASS to implement this work vary. There are some Family Court Advisers who are experienced, efficient, child focussed and helpful. Conversely, there are times when it is all too clear that the service is under immense pressure to meet caseloads, very little time is spent with the child and report deadlines are often missed. It is hoped that this guidance will allow Family Court Advisers to focus on the child and to assist in achieving better outcomes for families.
If you would like to discuss any aspect of the guidance, or need legal advice on a children matter, please do call Simon, Adam, Tricia, Sue or Gail on 01223 443333.