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A Cafcass pilot in Warwickshire and Coventry that introduced Family Court Advisors (FCA) at pre-proceedings stage has made significant reductions in the number of cases reaching court and reduced the length of care proceedings.
The pilot ran for 2 years with the objective of discovering whether the introduction of FCAs into pre-proceedings practice could make a positive impact on both the diversion of cases from care proceedings and the duration of care proceedings. A third pilot is running currently in the Liverpool area.
Research shows that under normal circumstances 25% of cases are diverted from court at the pre-proceedings stage, but that figure rose to 40% in the pilot. Cases were diverted from court proceedings in the pilot area by either making use of kin networks (grandparents and absent fathers) or undertaking reparative work with parents.
Care case duration under the pilot was also decreased. In 2010 in the Warwickshire and Coventry area, the average time for disposal of care cases was 70 weeks. During the pilot period, the mean duration of care proceedings (excluding complex cases) was 36.3 weeks. Comparator cases (where an FCA was not used) ran on average for 42.6 weeks. However, there were a number of initiatives introduced by the local authority in that time and it was a combination of these that was attributed to the dramatic shortening of the time taken to conclude proceedings.
The pilot considered what factors cause proceedings to run on too long. These included variable quality of social work assessment and cases entering the pre-proceedings process too late; there were other matters causing delay that were related to the specific circumstances of the different children and families involved. The evaluation of the pilot concluded that lack of decisive case handling in the courts was also a contributory factor. Failure to deal decisively with questions of parental capacity was a recurrent finding. Local authority professionals also criticised some lawyers for being, in their opinion, too 'combative' and seeking to set back the timetable on account of minor procedural irregularities.
The role of the FCA was found to be key to the pre-proceedings process operating successfully and either ultimately reducing the length of proceedings or diverting matters from court all together. Twice as many cases in the pilot completed within 26 weeks compared with cases in a comparator group. Cases in the pilot that were resolved in less than 26 weeks had in common a very tightly managed process between all agencies, with a high level of worker continuity. There was clear evidence that the FCA could contribute to safe and effective diversion plans, particularly where there was a difference of opinion between local authority workers.
In his 'View from the President's Chambers: the process of reform' May  Fam Law 551, Sir J Munby P said:
'Assuming that the local authority has delivered, CAFCASS must be in a position by the first hearing to provide an analysis of what the case is about and to advise the court what evidence and assessments are, and equally important what evidence and assessments are not, necessary. If this has all been done, the case management judge at the first hearing will be able, even at this very early stage, to embark on timetabling the case and giving comprehensive directions for the cases, adopting a robust, vigorous style of case management.'
In the report of the pilot, the authors said:
'There is no doubt that the direction of travel set in train by the Family Justice Review and now the Children and Families Bill, is not readily reversible. This shifts the burden of parenting and child assessment to the administrative space of pre-court social work.'
The full impact of the project will be evaluated at the conclusion of the Liverpool pilot.
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