Interview by Hugh Logue, Legal News Editor
It hasn't been an easy year for Cafcass. It began the year unprepared for the 'Baby P effect' which caused a sharp rise in care applications by risk adverse local authorities.
At the same time it was trying to adjust following the implementation of the Public Law Outline. Long delays in the appointment of guardians and preparation of child care court reports led to frustrated solicitors losing their patience with Cafcass are now preparing a judicial review case against the organisation.
After poor Ofsted inspections and a mounting backlog of cases, the President of the Family Division was forced to intervene by introducing Interim Guidance designed to ease the pressure by transferring some Cafcass case management responsibilities to children's solicitors.
The burden of sorting out the backlog fell on the Cafcass officers who complained they were being bullied and put under unbearable pressure resulting this month with them threatening to take industrial action.
With such a back drop, I put it to chief executive of Cafcass, Anthony Douglas, that the organisation is in a state of disarray.
"I'd say we're learning to live with increase demand and with the resources that we've got and adapting accordingly. I think the threat of industrial action can be communicated out, I think the judicial review will struggle to find a suitable case as more become allocated, but we still have lots of backlogs that we trying to clear", Mr Douglas said.
"What is encouraging is that we're getting more on top of new work coming in with the new operating models but we've still got sizable backlogs in many parts of the country to work through."
In light of the huge increase in workload are there any plans to recruit more staff?
"We are going to try and ease the restrictions we have had in place from the second half of this financial year from next April. So some staff are being recruited now in different teams in the lead-in times so they're in place for April," Mr Douglas said.
I expected Mr Douglas to say that Cafcass needed more funding to increase their resources to reduce the backlog of cases, but instead he appreciates that in the current economic climate this is increasingly unlikely.
"We're under-resourced on the traditional way of working, unquestionably. But resources being as they are we have to find a model that fits within the resources that we've got and that's what we're working with, judges especially, to do. We're all realists, judges are realists, we're all pragmatists."
In his speech at the annual board meeting, Mr Douglas apologised to families and children that Cafcass let down. What specifically was he apologising for?
"It was an apology for people who should have had a prompt early service and most of the criticism of us comes because of delays.
"I think that at the time of the major increases we could not identify the models of working to get every case allocated in the first few weeks. And that's what we are now trying to do. We're trying to improve the service by providing a different way and to give a guarantee of early intervention. The apology is certainly if children have waited - families have waited - five or six months, that's unacceptable."
When the President of the Family Division, Sir Mark Potter, announced the Interim Guidance back in August he said: "It must not simply become or be adopted as the benchmark for the future". However it would appear that Mr Douglas is looking to do exactly that when the Guidance ceases to have effect on the 31 March 2010.
"We believe that the Interim Guidance needs to continue in some shape or form, but that we need to continue the reduction in unallocated public law work and to reduce that to as close to zero as possible by April 2010. But we need the Guidance in some shape or form to continue because demand is still increasing on a static resource base."
In October, Cafcass supported changes to section 41 of the Children Act 1989 that would lead to Cafcass representing children in court instead of individual named guardians. This was despite many practitioners, including the ALC, being against the change. Now that the Government seem to have put the plans on hold, does Cafcass still want the change?
"We've moved on from that position very quickly and we're now seeking to manage resources collaboratively as best as we can," Mr Douglas said.
With all the problems it is facing, I wondered if there was anything that family practitioners could do to reduce Cafcass officers' workload, and was surprised by Mr Douglas response.
"It gets particularly frayed when solicitors are actively involved in cases we should be involved in as well. So we want to reduce that number of cases to zero so that we certainly don't transfer any of our responsibilities to anybody else. They're ours and ours alone.
"I think these are our core responsibilities, it is quite hard for other professionals to pick up and take on because we provide core expert social work case analysis and those can't be substituted. I think the joint working is terrific and the good will been shown by legal practitioners in a difficult time is fantastic."
The end of 2009 could mark a turning point for Cafcass. The new operating models could see the case backlog drop and a new agreement with the union might hold off staff industrial action. The test will come when the Interim Guidance ceases at the end of March, however unlike the 'Baby P effect' this time Cafcass will have had plenty of time to prepare.
Jordan Publishing will be hosting the Medical Evidence in Child Abuse Cases Conference on the 3 March 2010 in London. Lord Laming will be giving the keynote speech and the conference will also combine national policy discussions with practical advice on the use of medical evidence in child abuse cases. For more information click here.