The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) have recently published its statistics for the number of children’s cases opened this year in England and Wales compared to the same time last year.
The demand for private law children cases has decreased by 3.6% but between April to October 2021, CAFCASS still opened 25,203 new cases involving 38,626 children in England and Wales.
What is CAFCASS and what is its role in Private Law Children Cases?
The Court will get CAFCASS to assist them in a private child case to narrow down the issues in the dispute and try to get the parents to agree child arrangements ahead of the first Court hearing.
CAFCASS are required to carry out safeguarding checks before the first hearing in all private children cases, and these form part of what is known as a safeguarding letter.
What is a Safeguarding Letter?
CAFCASS will carry out initial police background checks on each parent and will contact children’s services to see if there are any previous or existing welfare or safeguarding concerns about the children or the family.
They will also speak to each parent before the first hearing in what is referred to as an initial interview to establish the concerns of each parent and to get an understanding of what each parent wants from the proceedings.
Once CAFCASS has carried out all of its background and safeguarding checks, including the initial interviews, a safeguarding letter is produced and sent to the Court ahead of the Court hearing. The letter tells the Court the outcome of all the initial checks and makes suggestions for how best to proceed.
At the first hearing, the Court will decide how much involvement CAFCASS should have in the case.
If there are no safeguarding concerns identified by CAFCASS as part of its enquiries, CAFCASS may advise the Court that they do not need to have a further active role in the case.
CAFCASS will be more involved if either parent has raised safeguarding concerns at the interview stage, or the background checks have revealed welfare issues.
In those cases, the Court may order CAFCASS to carry out a detailed report on the welfare issues (known as a section 7 report) and make recommendations once its investigations conclude about how the Court should approach and address any identified safeguarding and welfare issues.
What does CAFCASS consider as part of a Section 7 Report?
In the section 7 report, CAFCASS will consider:
- Who the child should live with
- Whether the child should see the other parent
- How often and for how long the child should see the other parent
- The child’s wishes and feelings
- The condition and suitability of each parent’s home
- The concerns of the parents
- Whether or not the child’s physical, emotional and educational needs are being met by the parents
- How the child would be affected by any proposed changes
- Whether or not it appears that the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering any harm
- The parenting capacity of the parents
- Whether the Local Authority should be requested to report under section 37 of the Children Act 1989
- If direct contact is not appropriate, whether there should be indirect contact and if so, in what form
- Recommendations for child arrangements, including stepped arrangements with a view to a final order if possible
The report will usually take 10 weeks to complete.
CAFCASS will make final recommendations to the Court about how to approach the child arrangements and act in the child’s best interests.
The report will be filed at Court and sent to both parents before the next hearing, which is referred to as a dispute resolution appointment. Parents are encouraged to agree the child arrangements, using the report as a guideline.
Does CAFCASS Attend Court?
If parents cannot agree a way forward, the case will usually be listed for a final hearing which CAFCASS will attend. Either party can ask CAFCASS questions if they feel that CAFCASS has not taken something important into account when making its final recommendations to the court.