What is CAFCASS?
CAFCASS stands for Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service.
In summary, they are social workers employed by the Government under the organisation of CAFCASS in order to help the Court make decisions about the welfare of children who are the subject of applications.
What do they do?
If you issue an application in the Family Court then you will undoubtedly have some contact with a CAFCASS officer. Initially they will contact you to carry out what are known as Safeguarding Checks. This means that they will ask you for you details (name, date of birth etc) so that they can check with the police and social services etc whether there is any information about the adults and children involved in the case. This information is then provided to the Court before the first hearing. Generally speaking a Court should not make an order involving children unless it has this information available.
It is very probable that at the first hearing a CAFCASS officer will be present to help the Court determine how best to deal with the case. This includes the possibility of mediating between you and the other adults in the case to see if some or all of the disagreements can be resolved.
The CAFCASS officer will also then tell the Court about their 'take' on the issues in the case and possibly make recommendations on how things should proceed.
What else do they do?
In some cases the Court may ask a CAFCASS officer to be assigned to the case and prepare a report. This is known as a "Welfare Report" or "Section 7 Report" (which comes from section 7 of The Children Act 1989). They will report to the Court as to the welfare of the children and make recommendations as what would be best for the children.
Usually they will see the adults and the children involved before the make their report.
Such reports usually take between 12 and 16 weeks, but it depends on the area in which you live. As their are a limited number of CAFCASS Officers and reports take a number of weeks to be prepared the Court does not order a Welfare Report in every case. Generally the Court asks that the report looks at specific issues in the case, for example the child's wishes and feelings.
There are other jobs CAFCASS can be asked to do by the Court. In complex cases they may be appointed as a Guardian for the Child under what is known as 'rule 16.4' which is the rule in the Family Procedure Rules 2010 that allows for the appointment as a Guardian for the child or children. Only a small proportion of cases are considered complex enough to justify this. It also means that the child or children will be made 'parties' to the Court case and have their own solicitor appointed to act on their behalf.
CAFCASS Officers are also involved in Care Cases, which I am not dealing with on this page.
Criticisms of CAFCASS
There are a numbers of criticisms of the CAFCASS system. They work in 'areas' around the country and of course a lot depends upon the local practices and resources in that area. I set out here some of the observations I have about the performance of CAFCASS in my area (North West) which may or may not be relevant to your area.
As with every Government body, CAFCASS has limited resources. My experience is that this has lead to a reluctance by the Court to appoint CAFCASS officers to report. I worry about this because it is through CAFCASS that the Court is given an independent account of the child's views, wishes and feelings. If a CAFCASS Officer does not see the child or children who the Court is likely to be making orders about then the Court is relying upon what the adults say about the children, which is not always an objective view. Additionally my experience is that children of a certain age have a habit of telling the adults what the adults want to hear. I have done numerous cases where mum has come to Court and said her son or daughter has told her that they want to live most of the time with their mum, only to have dad say that the same child has told him that they want to live most of the time with him. I have often believed that they were both telling the truth. WIthout an impartial person speaking to the children I worry that the child's feeling are being lost in the middle of the adult arguments.
The lack of money has also lead to CAFCASS officers devoting less time to each individual case as the number of cases they each have to deal with has increased. You might be surprised to find that a CAFCASS officer will visit you once, the other parent once and see the child(ren) once and then write a report and you have had to wait 16 weeks for it!
As with every profession, there are good and not so good CAFCASS Officers.
Having said all of that, never forget that the CAFCASS officer is very important. They are the eyes, ears and sometimes the brain of the Court. A Court will need considerable persuasion to do something that has not been recommended by the CAFCASS Officer and whilst it is possible, the easier option is show the CAFCASS Officer that what you think is in the best interests of the child is correct. Always listen carefully to what the CAFCASS Officer says and try not to approach them with a hostile or argumentative attitude.
You can find out more about CAFCASS, including information about making a complaint should you need to, on their website which - www.cafcass.gov.uk.