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Sandra Davis' Week: Don't blame Cafcass for being unfit for purpose

Date:12 NOV 2010

Sandra DavisMuch of the press has picked up on a report published yesterday by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) which has condemned organisational and systemic failures in the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass).

Cafcass has been lambasted for being unprepared for, and unable to cope with, the increase in its caseload that followed the death of Peter Connelly in August 2007. According to the Committee, as a direct result of those failings, 2009/10 saw "chaos across the family justice system".

Employing somewhat hackneyed political language, Margaret Hodge, Chair of the PAC, said the Service was "not fit for purpose" and was only able to respond to increased demand through the use of measures "which allowed it to do less work or to delay work on cases".

Cafcass may be far from perfect, but if it is being set up as a political punch bag I think a little balance is in order.

Margaret Hodge was the Minister of State for Children, Young People and Families from 2001 until 2005. During her time in that role she would have been aware of the extent to which Cafcass was underfunded. Indeed, in 2006 when its budget was frozen rather than increased by the extra £5m he had requested, Anthony Douglas, Cafcass's Chief Executive, warned that "2005-6 has been a tough year and 2006-7 will be even tougher." 

On 3 August 2007 Peter Connelly died. He had sustained over 50 injuries at the hands of his mother, her partner and her partner's brother during the preceding eight month period. During those eight months Peter was seen repeatedly by social workers, doctors and police and yet Haringey Children's Services had failed to initiate public law proceedings for him to be removed from his mother and placed in the care of the local authority.

The media and public outcry following Peter's death was unprecedented and the case became hugely politicised. The Head of Children's Services at Haringey was removed at the direction of Ed Balls, the then Minister of State, and, having chaired the 2001 inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié, Lord Laming was again called upon to investigate Social Services on a nationwide basis.

The reaction by Local Authorities across the country was predictable. Rather than risk another such child abuse atrocity, they began issuing Public Law application after application in relation to children they considered to be at risk.

According to the Public Accounts Committee, Peter Connelly's death directly prompted a 34% increase in cases for Cafcass to report on during 2009/10.

No organisation, let alone an already underfunded non-departmental public body, could be expected to cope efficiently with a 34% increase in its workload without a sizeable increase in resources, funding and manpower. Cafcass received none of these; the £6M budget increase it did receive in 2009 was around half the amount required to meet the cost of the extra public law cases that it was involved in.

Margaret Hodge said yesterday that Cafcass's failure to provide an effective service cannot be blamed solely on the rise in public care cases since 2008. I agree. The lack of proper funding by the Government was a significant contributing factor.

Sandra Davis is a Partner and Head of Family at Mishcon de Reya. She is a member of the firm's management board, a Fellow of the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the author of International Child Abduction (Sweet & Maxwell, 1993) and a member of the Lord Chancellor's Child Abduction Panel. In 2009 she was shortlisted in the Citywealth Magic Circle Awards as a Leading Lawyer.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.