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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

The rising demand of care applications

The rising demand of care applications


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

As the largest social work agency in England, Cafcass has both the opportunity and responsibility to collect and analyse public law demand across the country, which we publish on a monthly 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 taking more 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 placed with them than there are children waiting 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 Law Outline.

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 used more 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 to measure 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

Kevin Gibbs is senior head of service at Cafcass