If you end up in court to contest custody or access arrangements for your children, you’re going to end up working quite closely with Cafcass.
WHAT DOES CAFCASS DO?
Cafcass stands for The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. It’s the job of Cafcass to prepare a report for the court that broadly outlines the entire situation – current contact arrangements, living conditions, the wishes of the parents, the wishes of the children and their recommendations for what a ruling should look like.Crucially this will include safeguarding checks and investigations into any allegations of harm or abuse.
How Cafcass goes about gathering this information will vary. It may be that you are summoned to the Cafcass offices, or that they come to you in your home setting. Interviews could be conducted on the phone, and Cafcass may also require access to places where contact with your child will take place, or with pertinent other persons such as partners or relatives.
The organisation approaches disputes from the position of believing that parental alienation is a form of abuse . It wishes to promote contact wherever possible, but also to ensure a child’s safety.
THE CAFCASS REPORT
The recommendation Cafcass will eventually file to the court will potentially include guidance on which parent they believe a child should live with, the amount of contact the child should have with an absent parent and the sort of order a court should put in place.
Many factors are taken into account when making these decisions including the wishes of the child, the child’s safety, their emotional and educational needs, the likely impact of any change in circumstances, the capabilities of each parents and the range of powers available to the court.
All parties will see a copy of this report ahead of any court date, at which the Cafcass officer will also be present and will answer questions, just like both parents.
Cafcass data from 2012 shows that in cases where the family court makes a final ruling, Cafcass recommendations are enforced 76.4% of the time. In a further 14.3% of cases they are enforced subject to court review. Cafcass recommendations are not enforced in only 3.6% of cases.
My first direct contact with Cafcass beyond the initial letter I received was a phone call. Our officer was understanding and courteous, and I came away with the impression that she very much understood and had sympathy for my concerns. I was a little surprised when my daughter and I were asked to attend a meeting in central London at a time that would require her to leave school early, but we made a day of it, heading out to a museum and having lunch. I wanted it to be as fun an experience as possible for her.
Our time at Cafcass itself was very pleasant. Our officer was great, and as before, I felt she really understood the situation and shared my concerns. My daughter (who was nine at the time) and I were both interviewed separately. From what I could gather she was made to feel very comfortable and seemed to quite enjoy the whole thing.
My understanding was that Cafcass had intended to visit my ex-partner’s home to interview her and assess her living arrangements, but this meeting never took place. Instead, she was interviewed on the phone. That surprised me seeing as the suitability of her accommodation and other elements affecting my daughter’s safety were pressing issues.
But despite this, when the report eventually materialised some weeks later I was delighted. It took all of my concerns on board and made recommendations that I think would most definitely have gone a long way to safeguarding my daughter.
However, on the day of the hearing it was a very different story.
In court our Cafcass officer fell apart. She was unable to answer what were really quite basic questions about the conclusions she had drawn. I was forced to sit there in silence as she failed to justify each and every one of her decisions, and even failed to stand up for herself when wrongly accused of offering conflicting evidence by our three surprisingly hostile elderly female magistrates.
The result? The Cafcass report was virtually ignored in its entirety. The Court’s ruling imposed none of the recommended safeguards and, as we left that day, I genuinely feared for my daughter’s well-being.
As it happens, my barrister was equally as incensed. She quickly determined that the ruling was potentially illegal, and within days we were back in the court building. While we were unable to secure time in front of a judge ourselves, her paperwork so easily underlined the dramatic failings of the ruling that a stay was granted and the process of an appeal was quickly under way. Fortunately, my ex and I were able to come to an agreement out of court, meaning we never had to go through the process.
AN ISOLATED CASE?
What went wrong that day? I’ll never know for sure. What I do know is that the demands being placed on Cafcass are growing significantly. In 2008 the organisation received 6.5k care applications. By 2014 that had risen to 11.2k and by 2016 to 14.6k. At the same time, like nearly all public services, the organisation has suffered budget cuts and been forced to cut jobs. I dread to think how overworked they all are.
I don’t for one moment doubt the intentions of our officer, but sadly am forced to doubt her competence. Whether that is due to poor training, too high a workload, a bad day at the office or some other factor I can only speculate.
But I wouldn’t automatically buy into the many horror stories that a quick Google about Cafcass can unearth. By its nature, every report and every court case will normally result in a disappointed party. And the data shows that in the vast majority of cases, the court agrees with what Cafcass has to say.
Should you wish to discuss any of the issues raised in this article in the strictest confidence, please contact specialist solicitor and family mediator, Sarah Jackson, on 01225 462871 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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