The Commons Public Accounts Committee has warned in a new report that children's family court service, Cafcass, is "not fit for purpose".
The committee said that although the family court advisers saw a 34% rise in its casework following the Peter Connolly case, it has "failed to get to grips with fundamental weaknesses in its culture, management and performance".
The Committee also said the data which Cafcass holds on cases centrally contain inaccuracies. In July, Family Law Newswatch contacted Cafcass with concerns about the clarity of their statistics. Since then Cafcass has published its care demand statistics on a monthly basis.
According to the Committee's report eight out of ten Cafcass areas failed Ofsted inspections, which in 2009 gave overwhelming evidence that the service it provided for children and families was inadequate.
In the period from September 2009 to June 2010, Cafcass took up to 40 days on average to fully allocate a care case to a family court adviser. In private law, around a third of section 7 reports to the courts are more than 10 days late.
The report also found that sickness absence in Cafcass is unacceptably high (in 2009-10 sickness absence averaged 11.6 days per staff member, and was 16.1 days on average for family court advisers; by comparison, the public sector average was 8.3 days in 2009) and staff morale is low, reflected in the difficulty management has in achieving staff compliance with requirements of the organisation.
Cafcass was only able to respond to the increase in demand after the President of the Family Division issued Interim Guidance that allowed ‘duty allocation' of care cases as a temporary measure so that Cafcass could get on top of its unallocated workload.
The Committee concluded that while there may have been some improvements in Cafcass's performance, the Committee does not share the Department's confidence that the substantial organisational problems will be overcome by 2011.
In response, Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said it is fit for purpose because it has "absorbed a massive number of new cases in the last 12 months and have improved productivity by 17%".
"We have improved on every measure considered by the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office, including falling staff sickness, faster filing times of court reports and quicker allocation of cases," Mr Douglas said.
In his evidence to the Committee, High Court judge Sir Mark Hedley disagreed with the Committee's conclusions and said that he thought that Cafcass was "certainly fit for purpose" based on his experiences of the services delivered on the ground.
"I am bound to say Cafcass has made real strides with that in the last few months, and we have seen a significant reduction in backlogs. [...] If you talked to individual judges, you would find that most people were entirely satisfied with the quality of individual Cafcass officers' work. On the whole, it is recognised as being of good quality, profoundly conscientious and so on," Sir Mark said.
However, Nagalro, the professional association for guardians and independent social workers, said it agrees with the Public Accounts Committee and that Cafcass' reform needs to be radical.
Ann Haigh, Chair of Nagalro, said today: "Cafcass has consistently failed to deliver the service the law requires for children. Its very expensive management has failed over a long period to provide the timely service that vulnerable children need."
"But we do not think the Public Accounts Committee has got the solution quite right. Cafcass does not need more management - it is top-heavy with extremely expensive managers who do not understand the service's responsibilities to children. What we need is a much less bureaucratic service that allows experienced professionals to do the job they are trained for without having one hand tied behind their back.
Nagalro has told the Family Justice Review and the Children's Minister Tim Loughton that it would be more effective and cost effective for family court services to be commissioned at local level with stronger links to courts and a range of specialist services.
Click here to browse the report together with the Proceedings of the Committee.