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13

A

s the largest social work

agency in England,

Cafcass has both the

opportunity and responsibility

to collect and analyse public

lawdemand across the country,

which we publish on amonthly

basis. As part of our analysis we

are able to track the number of

applications made in each court

and by each local authority, as

well as the duration of each

application and the legal

outcome for the child

concerned.

Our figures for December 2015

show that we received a total of

1,092 care applications. This

figure represents a 17 per cent

increase compared to those

received in December 2014

and is not out of step with the

increases in demand seen each

month over the rest of the year.

The six highest monthly totals

in care applications over the last

five years were recorded in 2015:

all were above 1,000 applications

a month. The widespread

expectation that the number of

applications would decline

following an initial spike after

the Peter Connolly case – or

because of the impact of budget

reductions in local authorities

or some other such potential

primary cause – has not proven

correct.

Risk-averse action

So, what may be the reasons

for the recent record increases?

Cafcass’s view on the factors

behind the record increases is a

simple one. More need is being

identified and local authorities

are takingmore chronic

situations seriously. Pressure on

local authorities is being applied

by Ofsted or by the anticipation

of Ofsted criticism, and this is

also leading to actions and

decisions that are risk averse.

New case law – for example,

addressing the inappropriate

use of section 20 care – is also

having a major impact and

leading to a great number of

new care applications.

The varying rates of increase

across the country support the

view that thresholds for action

and ways of working locally are

different depending on the area.

Over the last year, application

numbers have shown a decrease

in some parts of the country

while other areas have seen an

increase of more than 135 per

cent. This warrants further

exploration: there isn’t a single

clear explanation for such a

wide discrepancy, sometimes

occurring between areas with

comparable demographic

profiles.

Care numbers have always

been something of a postcode

lottery and it is only by going

into a local situation in depth

that you can understand

whether the variation is a

problem, or whether the range

in numbers is understandable

and acceptable.

There is no indication that the

pressure caused by the increase

in applications compromises the

outcomes for vulnerable children.

For instance, there are now far

more adopters waiting for

children to be placedwith them

than there are childrenwaiting to

be placed. Five years ago, there

were record numbers of children

waiting, freed for permanence

but with nowhere to go.

Sector response

How is the family justice system

responding to the rise?

The average duration of care

cases across the country has

been reduced dramatically. In

the three months up to the end

of September 2015, the national

average was 29 weeks – edging

closer to the 26 weeks required

under the Public LawOutline.

This is a reduction of a week

from the previous quarter,

continuing the steady reduction

over the years, with duration

nearly halved from 57 weeks in

2011/12.

The system’s ability to increase

the throughput of applications

has meant that the finite

resources are usedmore

efficiently and that decisions

affecting each child are made

more promptly, within their

timescales.

Furthermore, new ways

of working have allowed the

sector to begin to explore the

child’s experience at individual

stages of proceedings, not just

the duration of the court

process. This includes pre-

proceedings work that is more

structured and transparent,

and section 20 arrangements

which can assist in giving

children and their families a

clearer direction for their future

at an earlier stage.

The time taken from the

point when concerns over the

wellbeing of a child are identified

to the point of resolution is harder

tomeasure but is potentially

more important than the time the

formal legal process takes.

The greater visibility of

pre-proceedings work, the

scrutiny of section 20 cases,

recent work focusing on

the effective use of special

guardianship orders, and efforts

to reduce the risk of placement

breakdown also have clear

benefits for children. The key

push is to improve the standards

of social work so that all children

receive the service they should.

We are not quite there yet,

despite improvements.

SJ

FEATURE

FAMILY

As the number of care cases continues to increase,

Kevin Gibbs

looks at the possible

reasons and considers how the wider family justice system can respond

The rising demand of care

applications

Kevin Gibbs is senior head of

service at Cafcass

@MyCafcass

www.cafcass.gov.uk

SJ 160/6

Expert Witness Supplement Spring 2016

Thresholds for

action and ways

of working locally

are different

depending on the

area