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A welcome return: Cafcass and seeing children and families face to face by Christopher Rowe

Tue 14th Jul 2020

I recently spoke at a webinar which, in part, addressed the ‘Cafcass Protocol for Attending Court’ published on 29th May 2020. That Protocol can be located here and such sets out the policy of Cafcass in relation to Family Court Advisers (FCAs) attending court in person during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Protocol was released as the reopening of courts was on the horizon and draws on some of the recent case law and guidance, as well as setting down a policy that an FCA will attend hearings remotely unless there is a ‘compelling’ reason to attend in person.

On 6th July 2020, Cafcass then published two further protocols –

  1. Protocol for the use of Cafcass offices during the COVID-19 pandemic (v1);
  2. Protocol for returning to in person work with children and families.

 

Using Cafcass offices

Cafcass closed its offices on 20th March 2020. Since then work with children and families has been remote. Cafcass has recognised a need to return to completing interviews/assessments based on face to face meetings and, as a result, will soon be reopening some offices to allow FCAs to see certain children and families.

The Protocol outlines the safety measures that will be in place (in accordance with Government guidelines) and explains that separate guides, for individual offices, will be made available.

Seeing children and families

This Protocol considers when and how an FCA will see children and/or families. It is not limited to interviews/assessments at Cafcass offices but extends to visits in homes, schools and other locations.

At the outset, the Protocol makes clear that ‘it is a matter of professional judgement, and negotiation with children and their families which will inform how children are ‘seen’ and, by association, how best to understand their experiences, needs, wishes and feelings in a timescale which is in their best interests’.

Remote assessments/interviews will however continue and Cafcass are keen to highlight how this method of working can be easier in certain cases and is preferred by some children.

Safe arrangements to see children and families in person will be made ‘where it is not appropriate to do so remotely’. Face to face visits will be avoided (at present) unless there is ‘clear purpose and reason’ for doing so. There is no ‘checklist’ or determinative factor(s) in deciding whether there should be face to face interview/assessment and the decision is one for the FCA in the exercise of their judgment. However, some examples given include –

a. where coercion or parental alienation is suspected to be taking place or where the FCA feels that remote contact would not provide the children with a safe and confidential environment in which to be interviewed;
b. in cases of serious domestic abuse, where the parent has justified concerns about the impact on the child of speaking about such traumatic events via video;
c. for a young person or parents with significant complex and additional needs including significant mental health issues where remote direct work is not appropriate for the individual.

Apparent from this Protocol is that an FCA is required to be specific, in their analysis, as to the weight given to remote discussions and observations. Such will no doubt form the basis of cross-examination of an FCA in appropriate cases.

A risk assessment will need to be completed in each instance when a face to face visit is considered as necessary.

A re-issue of this Protocol is due in July 2020 and will ‘set out arrangements to help prepare children for contact with FCAs, whether remote or face to face’. This will no doubt be a useful tool for parents and children.

Conclusion

Face to face interviews/assessments of children and/or parents can be a vital step in ensuring that an FCA has the necessary evidence to make a proper and welfare-based recommendation to the Court. The decision of Cafcass to open certain offices and resume face to face interviews/ assessments should be widely welcomed. The backlog of cases from the perspective of both Cafcass and the courts, coupled with the current restrictions, mean that all issues won’t be resolved overnight (or likely in a short time period). However, such changes are no doubt a step in the right direction and ones which, for some families, will make them feel as though that justice is being done to their case.

Christopher Rowe accepts instructions in all areas of family law. His profile can be found here

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