Emma Taylor of GoodLaw’s Family Law team discusses the role of CAFCASS

The role of CAFCASS in private law Children Act 1989 proceedings

Who are CAFCASS?

CAFCASS are The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. CAFCASS are independent of the courts, social services, education and health authorities and all similar agencies although CAFCASS Officers are, on the whole, qualified social workers.

What do CAFCASS do?

CAFCASS’ duty is to safeguard and promote the welfare of children going through the family justice system. They provide reports, undertake checks, liaise with the parties and the courts and make recommendations on the best outcome for the child subject to the evidence presented to them.

When will CAFCASS become involved with my case?

A referral to CAFCASS will be triggered upon issue of any private law Children Act 1989 application. This referral will mean that CAFCASS are requested to undertake initial safeguarding checks.

What are CAFCASS Safeguarding checks? What is a safeguarding letter?

Safeguarding checks will include enquiries with the police and children’s services to see if the parties or children have any records with those agencies and also a telephone interview with either party to discuss any safeguarding concerns they may have. The results of these checks are then recorded in a letter to the Court, which will also be circulated to the parties. The letter will provide recommendations to the Court as to the next steps and the likely court directions (orders) that may be required.

A CAFCASS Officer may be at court at the first hearing (FHDRA) and may want to speak further to the parties or for the first time if they have been unable to contact them by telephone. They may provide the Court with an update if this proves necessary.

Generally, the CAFCASS Officer undertaking the safeguarding checks will be different to the person who will prepare any substantive CAFCASS report in the course of the proceedings.

What can CAFCASS be directed to do?

The Court may decide that CAFCASS should continue to be involved in your case and may order one of the following:

1. A wishes and feelings report be prepared by CAFCASS. This is most appropriate in cases involving children aged 10 years and over as they are considered more “competent” to understand the implications when expressing their wishes and feelings. The CAFCASS Officer will undertake child appropriate activities with the children to elicit their wishes and feelings without them feeling too pressured.

2. A section 7 report (also known as a welfare report). This is a substantive report that will also include consideration of the children’s wishes and feelings along with investigation of safeguarding concerns or allegations that have been made. This can involve further checks with agencies to include schools or doctors, interviews with the parties, observation of the time spent with the children and child appropriate activities with the children. The CAFCASS Officer will make recommendations to the Court about the next steps or the most suitable conclusion to the proceedings in their view.

3. In cases with complex or serious issues, a CAFCASS Officer may be appointed as a r16.4 Guardian for the child. This means that the child would automatically receive legal aid and a solicitor and the Guardian would act as the “voice” of the child within the proceedings offering their recommendations to the Court.

What do I need to do to prepare for a conversation with the CAFCASS Officer?

The most important thing to remember is that you should work openly and honestly with CAFCASS. If you are worried about speaking with the CAFCASS Officer or concerned you might forget things, you could make a note of the points you think are relevant or that you want to discuss with them or ask them whether you could have someone else present to take notes or to support you if required.

Can I change my CAFCASS Officer?

The Cafcass Officer is appointed by the Court. It is not possible to change the Cafcass Officer because you do not agree with the conclusions they have reached or simply because of a personality issue. It is important that, no matter your personal feelings or if you are worried that the CAFCASS Officer has favoured the other party, that you continue to cooperate with the CAFCASS Officer. If you feel the CAFCASS Officer has not conducted themselves properly, CAFCASS do have a complaints procedure but it may be advisable to await the outcome of the court proceedings before making a complaint to avoid alienating the CAFCASS Officer.

What if I disagree with a CAFCASS recommendation? Can I change my CAFCASS report?

Unfortunately, CAFCASS recommendations are not always in accordance with what you are asking the court to order. Whilst the Court places a great deal of weight on the recommendations of professionals, your lawyer will take your instructions on the CAFCASS report and advise you specifically about whether it is possible to challenge the recommendations at the next hearing, which is usually a Dispute Resolution Appointment (DRA). CAFCASS Officers are not always ordered to attend a DRA and it may be you have to wait until the Final Hearing to properly challenge the CAFCASS Officer. This is usually done during cross-examination, which involves the CAFCASS Officer giving evidence and being asked questions on their recommendations. The Court will then make a determination about whether the CAFCASS Officer’s recommendations should be upheld or whether these should be compromised upon or completely disregarded.

If you require advice or assistance with your children act proceedings, please do not hesitate to contact the writer, Emma Taylor, or Amy Trevellick in the GoodLaw Family Department on 01273 956270 or by email at family@goodlawsolicitors.co.uk