The Cafcass Prioritisation Protocol
Why has prioritisation become necessary in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk?
Prioritisation is intended as a way of averting operational collapse and being transparent with families and courts. Demand in private law and the way Cafcass is organised in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk has worked effectively over the years. However, a combination of the backlog created in the early stages of the pandemic, the growing delays in disposing of cases and the way work is organised in the area means that the caseloads of family court advisors (FCAs) have increased to unsafe levels and this is now undermining the capacity of managers and supervisors to oversee the quality of practice and decision-making. Cafcass is holding 22% more open and active cases and it is no longer possible to allocate all private law cases safely within normal timescales.
What happens when it is no longer possible to ‘allocate cases within normal timescales’?
The Assistant Director for the service area informs the local judiciary and partners of the problem in advance of the final decision to ‘activate prioritisation’, with the intention of agreeing any additional measures that may help to prevent prioritisation. This commitment to liaison and discussion can take up to 7 weeks before the final decision is made.
What does prioritisation mean for the courts?
Cafcass accepts the orders of the courts in the normal way, undertakes an additional risk assessment and decides which cases are prioritised for allocation and which cases can be held in the ‘allocation hub’. The court is informed about which cases we intend to hold in the Hub. The proposed timescale for filing is included in the Safeguarding Letter, along with a request to extend the filing date. Cafcass provides the courts with a weekly update of the cases held in the Hub.
What cases will be held in the Hub?
Public law cases are allocated in the normal way, as are private law cases deemed urgent or where there are concerns about the welfare of the child. Only the less urgent private law cases will be held in the Hub. The Hub is managed by a social work Practice Supervisor and a Business Service Officer.
How will families be informed and kept informed?
Children and families will be informed by letter and provided with a single point of contact to seek advice, make representations and send in any additional information. We communicate with families every 4-6 weeks. We will do everything we can to allocate their case sooner.
How will cases held in the Hub progress to allocation?
Cases are allocated sooner as active cases are closed and the capacity of FCAs to take new cases increases. Cases may also be allocated sooner based on additional information or alerts. Cafcass will write to the relevant court when this happens. Reports on cases held in the Hub will take up to 26 weeks to file and further extensions will only be requested in exceptional circumstances.
How does prioritisation end?
The data on pressures (FCA caseloads, the numbers of cases held on duty, the average days it takes to allocate cases, the cases held by service managers and practice supervisors, the proportion of cases held by agency staff and the quality of work) is reviewed monthly. At the first signs that things are returning to normal and look sustainable, the Assistant Director will liaise with the DFJ and a review meeting will be held in Cafcass to discuss de-activating prioritisation and closing the Hub.
What can be done to prevent prioritisation in future?
Within the constraints of available resources, the following joint measures will assist in preventing the need for prioritisation: clearing the backlog of cases; reducing requests for s7 reports; agreeing more focused s7 reports; reducing requests for additional experts; reducing delay and associated levels of addendum reports; and reducing requests for FCAs to attend hearings. In addition, Cafcass is committed to reviewing recommendations for s7 reports, narrowing the issues to be explored in s7 reports and improving the efficiency of our allocation processes.