Cafcass has to use its prioritisation protocol in London for less urgent private law cases
When ordered by the London courts to assess the safety and welfare of children and advise the court about their best interests in private law family court proceedings, Cafcass will now use its Prioritisation Protocol for the cases where children and families need a more timely response to their difficulties.
The final decision to activate prioritisation was made following discussions with the judges for the three courts: West London, East London, and the Central family courts.
In accordance with the protocol, first introduced in 2021 to manage the unrelenting challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, an ‘Allocation Hub’ will be created to hold the less urgent children’s cases. This will enable the timely allocation of higher risk children’s cases, maintain safe caseloads for Family Court Advisers, restore capacity for management support, supervision and oversight, maintain the quality of practice, and provide a single point of contact for families prior to allocation of their case to a Family Court Adviser. Strict limits have been agreed for how long a child’s case can be held in the Hub.
Cafcass has worked closely with family justice partners in London both during and since the pandemic to understand the local challenges and to find ways to address them. Although these efforts have reduced local pressures and prevented the need for prioritisation for over two years, the current situation is not sustainable without this action. The reasons for activating the Prioritisation Protocol in London include:
- The long-standing and increasing pressures on the local family justice system which are a result of a rising number of private family law applications – this being particularly acute in London, where there was a 27% increase in new private law applications received by Cafcass between April and July 2023 (compared to the same period in 2022);
- The additional work caused by ongoing delay; and
- The challenges for Cafcass and its partners in maintaining staffing capacity.
We know from experience of activating prioritisation in these circumstances in other court areas and from an internal evaluation (evaluation findings) that prioritisation reduces pressure on Family Court Advisers and their managers, enabling them to maintain the quality of practice and service to children, families and courts. Several court areas previously using prioritisation as a means of managing workloads, have been deactivated through effective collaboration and partnership working. We expect two further court areas to have exited prioritisation by the end of the year.
Exclusions from prioritisation
Public law cases for London are not affected by this decision. Prioritisation will not impact on the work of the High Court Team. Initial advice to court (known as the ‘safeguarding letter’) where the court determines whether a s7 report is required and when by, is also unaffected by prioritisation. The involvement of Cafcass concludes at this point in most private family law proceedings.
How prioritisation will work for London
Under the protocol, Cafcass will continue to accept court orders for private family law cases in the normal way. An Assistant Service Manager will undertake a review of the case to determine which children’s cases should be prioritised for allocation and which can be held in the Allocation Hub under the local agreement. Our intention is to reduce filing times for prioritised cases to within 14 weeks. The less urgent children’s cases will be held in the Hub, overseen by the Assistant Service Manager until the case can be allocated to an available Family Court Adviser. This will be at least eight weeks before the filing date.
The types of children’s cases that will be considered less urgent have been agreed locally between Cafcass and the judiciary. Cases held in the Hub will be overseen by an Assistant Service Manager who will monitor new information and bring forward allocation to a Family Court Adviser if the circumstances for the child and family change.
The court will be informed about all children’s cases to be held in the Hub. The children and families will receive a letter to explain the situation and will be provided with details about how to make contact with Cafcass. The manager will do everything they can to allocate cases as soon as possible, and especially if circumstances for the child and family change.
In addition, to managing the pressures, we are in the process of opening a second ‘Post-Assessment Hub’ for Greater London. Post-Assessment Hubs hold children’s cases where the work ordered by the court has been completed and the report has been filed with the court, but the hearing is listed more than six weeks into the future.
Cafcass Chief Executive, Jacky Tiotto said:
“The decision to activate our prioritisation protocol in London has not been taken lightly. Over the past two years, there has been a high degree of collaboration and support from local family court judges in maintaining the current system and preventing prioritisation. However, the rising number of private law family court applications and the additional work caused by delay has meant that we have had to make the difficult decision to activate our procedures to prioritise the most urgent work after the first hearing in private family law cases.
“The use of an Allocation Hub with close oversight of the work that is not allocated to a Family Court Adviser and providing a single point of contact for families has been an effective way of managing similar pressures in other family court areas. I am confident that with continuing collaboration and effective partnership, the action we are taking will help to ease some of the pressures we are all facing. The tested process of prioritisation will enable us to do what we always aim to do at Cafcass which is to work for and in the best interests of children and young people involved in family court proceedings.”
Find out more about our prioritisation protocol and the summary findings from the evaluation of the first year of implementation: Prioritisation protocol - Cafcass - Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service