The role of Cafcass
When your child is subject to family proceedings, there may be a barrage of different voices and perspectives: from parents, their legal representatives, and even the wider family. Unfortunately – and unintentionally – it is all too easy for the bigger picture to become blurred, and this is where Cafcass (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) will step in. But who is Cafcass, what is its role, and why is it involved? Family law paralegal Georgia Smith of the Group’s specialist family and children law practice, McAlister Family Law, explains.
Who is Cafcass?
The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, or Cafcass, is an independent organisation whose primary role is to represent the interests of children. Cafcass can become involved in private law child arrangements proceedings, where separated parents are unable to agree on arrangements, or in public law applications brought by social services, where there are concerns about the welfare of a child.
What is the role of Cafcass in Private Law Proceedings?
Upon filing an application with the Court, the case will be referred to Cafcass, which will initially write to both parents to explain its role within proceedings and inform them of their allocated case worker.
Cafcass will then carry out safeguarding checks. This will include contacting the police and the local authority, to ascertain if any of the parents are known to them, and if there are any known welfare or safety risks to the child(ren).
Cafcass will then schedule a telephone interview with each parent. Although this may seem daunting, the case worker will speak to each parent individually, with a view to discovering any concerns that they may have about the welfare and safety of their child(ren). It is imperative that parents are open, honest and remain child-focused. After all, Cafcass are working towards a fair resolution, with the child(ren)’s best interests at the forefront of their consideration.
Following this, a safeguarding letter will be prepared and sent to the Court. This report will detail the outcome of the safeguarding checks and any issues raised by the parents during the telephone interviews. The safeguarding letter will normally be made available to the parents, their solicitors and the Court, at least three days before the first hearing.
The role of the Cafcass worker is to work with both parents to reach a mutual agreement that is in their child(ren)’s best interests. If at the first court hearing it is apparent that the parents are unable to reach an agreement and there remains welfare concerns raised by one of the parents, then the Court may direct that Cafcass prepare a Section 7 report.
This report will primarily focus on the welfare of the child(ren) and is prepared for the Court in accordance with the welfare checklist contained within Section 1 of the Children Act 1989. A range of factors are taken into consideration, including:
* the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of the child’s age and understanding)
* the child’s physical, emotional and educational needs
* the likely effect on the child of any change in their circumstances
* the child’s age, sex, background and any characteristics which the court considers relevant
* any harm which the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering
* how capable each of the parents, and any other person who the court considers the question to be relevant, is of meeting the child’s needs
* the range of powers available to the court in the proceedings.
Dependant on the age and maturity of the child(ren), Cafcass may speak with them to ascertain their wishes and feelings. Although Cafcass is often referred to as the ‘voice of the child’, they may consider that the child’s view is not in their best interests, so it is important for parents to understand that a child’s opinion may not always be decisive and attempts should not be made to influence their wishes.
Upon receipt of the Section 7 report, each parent should expect their solicitor to analyse the report in detail. Cafcass will make recommendations to the Court and usually the Judge will not depart from these recommendations without persuasive evidence to the contrary.
That being said, the report is not always considered determinative and of course, the recommendations can be challenged. Experienced children solicitors understand that family relations are complex and often assumptions can be made on limited information. It is therefore essential that parents work with their solicitor, and Cafcass, to reduce the issues in dispute and focus on the best interests of their child(ren).