2016 has been our busiest year on record. Public law work is increasing by around 15% year on year and private law work by around 11%. These increases are the latest in what has now become a long-term trendline. Attention inevitably turns to how we can continue to absorb this level of increase. And in doing so still meet our unshakeable objective – to ensure that the next child referred to us receives an immediate service, and a good service at that.
We will have to work hard to keep average caseloads in Cafcass manageable and to be able to continue to guarantee a good level of service to each child. We must allow our practitioners sufficient professional time on each case to be able to understand a child’s situation. They need sufficient time to make enquiries to inform recommended action plans for each child to a court charged with taking decisions with potentially profound long-term consequences.
One aspect of this will be to direct extra frontline resources to those parts of the country seeing the largest increases. We already have a rapid response system in which we top up those local budgets under greatest pressure. We will continue to do that because while many parts of the country are seeing very large increases in work, other local systems are successfully reducing demand. For example, public law demand has gone down by over 30% in Coventry, 15% in Lincolnshire and 40% in Wolverhampton. This is partly through highly effective Pre-Proceedings Panels which concentrate on putting in place care packages for children on the edge of care. But also through the robust gatekeeping of potential applications rather than the practice of issuing more speculative applications which I am seeing much too often.
This year has tested our resilience, as individuals, as teams, as an organisation and as a family justice system. Despite these pressures, we have not fallen over. There are lessons in that though. If we are to stay on top of the work, we will have to take steps either to increase capacity or to find smarter ways of working which use fewer resources. That is hard when all obvious savings have been made already. However, there is always scope for innovation and one of our main challenges in 2017 will be to innovate in safe and professionally sound ways. This will be through a combination of safely diverting cases from court and finding ways of progressing cases more quickly and effectively when they do come into court. I believe there are programmes we can introduce to do just that, building on what we have all been doing in 2016. For example our out of court helpline pilots and our faster section 7 report programmes in private law cases.
Finally, I encourage everyone working in the family justice system to take a well-earned break over Christmas and the New Year. We all need to come back re-energised for the undoubted challenges ahead next year.