As many parents involved in Children Act proceedings will know, CAFCASS can play a pivotal role in providing information to the Court, especially in respect of a child’s wishes and feelings, and in making recommendations as to how a case can move forward.
It will therefore be a relief to many involved in proceedings concerning children to know that in a report released by Ofsted this week, CAFCASS has been given praise for outstanding leadership and for a significant improvement in key services and procedures, since a finding of being “inadequate” was made in 2009, with further heavy criticism in 2010.
The report looks at many developments within the agency which have helped to reform and streamline the way it works, which in turn has improved the quality of service offered.
It can be hard for parents involved in child law proceedings – whether private law or public law – if they do not understand the role of CAFCASS fully, or if they do not agree with the contents of reports and recommendations. It is important that either problem is addressed correctly in order to avoid unnecessary complications. I have seen numerous problems arise from simple misunderstanding over what the role of CAFCASS is, and what they can and cannot do.
There are many different ways in which CAFCASS can be involved in a private law case (for example Residence and Contact). These can include:
- Initial guidance given at the first Court hearing, the conciliation appointment, after hearing from both parents
- Safeguarding checks prior to the first hearing in order to establish whether there are welfare issues or concerns
- Preparation of a report into the child(ren)’s wishes and feelings
- Preparation of a more detailed report looking into the circumstances of the case
- Acting as the child’s litigation Guardian if the child becomes a party to the proceedings
- Providing support and guidance to the family under a Family Assistance Order.
CAFCASS are not able to adjudicate on disputed factual issues and this is what many people do not understand. Further, CAFCASS do not have an intensive investigatory role and often parents misunderstand how much evidence and information gathering CAFCASS should do, rather than the parent(s) doing it themselves as part of the preparation of their case.
CAFCASS offer useful information and guidance on their website about what they do, and how they go about making their enquiries, but if people remain unsure it is perfectly acceptable to seek clarification and often wise to do so.
It is not possible for a party in private law proceedings to either demand or refuse CAFCASS involvement, and the decision is one which can be made by the Judge only – though people are allowed to make submissions on whether or not they believe that CAFCASS involvement in the case would assist. Further it is important for people to understand that until CAFCASS involvement has been sanctioned by a Judge in an appropriate order, CAFCASS cannot become involved in the proceedings or assist the parents, except to undertake the mandatory safeguarding checks.
With more and more people being forced to represent themselves within proceedings, it is increasingly important that people understand procedural rules and guidelines, and the roles of other people who may be involved in the case.
For specialist legal advice please call Slater and Gordon Lawyers on freephone 0800 916 9055 or contact us online and we'll be happy to help you.
Cara Nuttall is one of our Family & Children Law Solicitors in Manchester.
Slater and Gordon have the largest team of Family Lawyers in England & Wales with offices in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Sheffield, Milton Keynes, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Halifax, Newcastle, Wakefield and meeting rooms in Bramhall, Cheshire.