Education & Family

Family court service criticised over increased demand

Image caption Cafcass says more children were allocated a guardian this year than last

The agency which looks after children's interests in court has not dealt efficiently with an increase in cases since the death of Baby Peter in 2007, an audit finds.

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service experienced a sharp rise in care cases in English courts.

The National Audit Office said the service had failed to resolve known staff and technical problems.

Cafcass said it has made improvements and urgent cases are prioritised.

In a report, the audit office said Cafcass faced "enormous challenges" to help vulnerable children.

The report said that after the death of Baby Peter in August 2007, many local authorities became more cautious and more likely to apply for care orders.

The service dealt with an extra 200 cases each month, brought by social services anxious to take children at risk into care.

On top of that, there was a 16% rise in custody cases involving separating couples.

This pressure on resources meant the allocation of court advisers to children's cases slowed down dramatically, the report said.

Between November 2008 and July 2009 the number of children involved in family court proceedings, without the adviser they were supposed to have, increased from 250 to 1,250.

But the report acknowledged that between August 2009 and June 2010 Cafcass reduced the proportion of children without a family court adviser, from 10% to 2% in care cases and from 34% to 5% in family breakdown cases.

The report also conceded Cafcass could not have foreseen the sustained increase in demand for its services.

But it said it would have responded better if it had tackled known organisational problems concerning information technology systems and staff engagement.

Cafcass was given £4.8m to help control the backlog of cases but the NAO said this had not been value for money.

It said Cafcass management must improve staff morale and address high rates of sickness.

'Known problems'

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: "Cafcass's ability to respond to the surge in demand for its services was limited by the known problems within the organisation which, had management made more and faster progress in dealing with them, could have reduced the negative effect of the rise in demand."

Cafcass said it had made improvements and the most urgent cases were now prioritised, while court processes had been simplified.

Chief executive Anthony Douglas said the NAO report had recognised the steps the service had taken to improve its ability to provide a service to "so many more children than ever before".

"In June 2010 11,243 care cases were allocated to a Cafcass children's guardian - that's 2,496 more care cases than in July last year and a 28.5% increase in our allocated care case workload.

"This is a terrific achievement given the pressure that we, and all organisations in the family justice system, are under."

But the chairwoman of the Committee of Public Accounts, Margaret Hodge, said the report raised "serious concerns about the way in which Cafcass meets the needs of vulnerable children".

She said: "My committee will take evidence on this report in September and I will want to understand why, some seven years after it was formed, the organisation lacked the managerial competence to deliver an effective service.

Children's Minister Tim Loughton said: "Cafcass has faced some serious challenges to respond to the continued high level of care applications in the family justice system."

The government would be "considering the role of Cafcass as part of the wider review of the family justice system", he added.

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