The first two months of 2013 have seen more record volumes of care applications and private law applications to court, the latter no doubt in order to start some cases before the Legal Aid eligibility changes take effect in April. Despite these increases, we have also been completing record numbers of cases through faster working. This is across the family justice system, not just in Cafcass. An example is the continuing reduction in the average length of a care case, which is now down to 45 weeks. The average conceals of course major variation, from 27 weeks in one court area to 70 in another. Reducing case duration is one challenge. Reducing such unjustifiable variation is going to be even harder.
Our aim in Cafcass is to start and complete our work as soon as possible in every case. We are making progress in this but we have much more work to do, both on our practice model in public and private law cases, and in supporting judicial case management and the more effective listing of cases, for example listing practice that leads to effective first hearings.
We are also taking steps to understand the impact of the forthcoming legal aid changes on our practice and our use of professional time. We will be conducting an analysis in one of our local service areas of any extra time we spend on supporting those who conduct their own case. We have a duty to support children and their families, but we cannot give legal advice as we are not competent to do so and we must maintain our focus on children’s welfare. If our findings in this analysis are significant, we will discuss the results with the Legal Aid Agency and Government.
Within our public law practice model, we are currently thinking about how best to balance the work we do with that done by Independent Reviewing Officers, on the implementation and monitoring of care plans in public law cases. In private law cases we are looking at and the impact of negative ‘coaching’ or influence by one parent against the other.. Other areas include how we approach a child’s need for contact with relatives after placement or after parental separation, and the application of contemporary knowledge about attachment and separation. The purpose of this work is to define and make accessible a model of family court social work which will support children and courts. We want to bring out the inherent expertise of social workers, including Children’s Guardians, and to have that expertise widely recognised as it is applied to practice.