An evaluation is promised in the spring, but whispers so far seem to suggest a taxpayer-funded Cafcass pilot scheme might not prove a towering value-for-money success.
Last November Ministerial trumpets accompanied an announcement that money was being made available to fund the grand-sounding ‘Supporting Separated Parents in Dispute’ (SSPID) pilot project.
Its two-fold aim was to provide
mediators with advice about managing risk in cases that come to them; and
telephone advice about dispute resolution for couples disputing future parenting arrangements
in North Tyne and Wear; York and North Yorkshire; Bristol; Norfolk/Hertfordshire/ Bedfordshire, and Kent.
As with any project that costs public money, the jungle drums have been working overtime with news, views and rumours about SSPID’s track record.
Let’s stress the official jury is still out on a project with two of its six months still to run, but if it turns out not to have been a triumph, why might that be? Let’s take those aims one by one.
Managing risk in cases that come to mediation is very important. That’s why, as all professional mediators will tell anyone who’ll listen, they have statutory responsibilities.
For people whose cases go to court, background checks that rightly enable risks to be screened and assessed are done automatically. Those involved don’t necessarily know this is happening, but it is.
Let’s leave behind for a moment the fact that the legitimate role of Cafcass only kicks in when an application is made to a court, and focus on what their SSPID pilot aimed to do about risk where cases instead go for mediation.
In these cases, background checks don’t happen since mediators don’t have the statutory authority to get criminal records from police or access local authority information. So they need to rely on the people involved in the case tell them. And they find that even couples who are willing to mediate tend not to be backwards in coming forward with allegations about their ex relating to key safety issues, proceeds of crime, financial regularities, alcohol or drug use, and so on.
Yet the mediator has a duty under law to report any serious issues to the local social services. It’s their legal responsibility, rightly so.
The Cafcass pilot seems to suggest mediators don’t know this, or that they don’t know enough about risk screening … or just aren’t very good at it. So they’re staffing phone lines to 'enable mediators to manage appropriate cases with risk through mediation'. As if they didn’t already.
Now, if you’re a mediator and you have concerns about an allegation you feel threatens somebody’s safety – adult or child – then you report it to social services. Why, then, would you ‘double up’ the workload by also asking Cafcass what you should do? Especially when their response will be along the lines of …. ‘report it to social services’.
Murmurs from mediators who have contacted Cafcass during SSPID suggest those staffing phone lines don’t have much knowledge or expertise about what mediation is, or how the process is managed.
The main drive of government policy is to keep separating parents out of court wherever possible …which brings me to the second of the pilot’s stated aims: telephone advice 'to make sure that separating parents are able to access the right advice, information and support at the right time'.
On the face of it, this sounds a good thing. And, yes, demand for this support and advice is clear to see. For example, the average number of monthly calls to National Family Mediation’s 0300 4000 636 dispute resolution helpline in 12 months to the start of SSPID was up 58 per cent on the previous year: and well over 3,500 calls are now being taken each month.
Yet that’s kind of the point. Telephone support to meet SSPID’s stated aim already exists.
So the over-generous funding of government agencies to ‘double up’ on existing provision hardly seems the shrewdest way to spend finite resources in straitened times.
A tiny proportion of the money splashed by the government on SSPID would have comfortably funded the extension of existing provision. An election looms and politicians are keen to demonstrate they are spending money on priorities. If only they were making the best use of the cash.
Perhaps the predictors of doom for this pilot are wrong. But if they turn out to be correct, you perhaps now know why. Let’s just hope lessons are learned. The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.