The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS).
CAFCASS is an organisation which looks after the welfare of children involved in Family Law proceedings. A CAFCASS Officer (also called Family Reporter or Family Court Advisor) is trained in social work but independent from Social Services.
In private family law proceedings, their officers carry out a number of different duties including:
Under section 16A of the Children Act 1989:
(2) If ... an officer of the Service ... is given cause to suspect that the child concerned is at risk of harm, he must a) make a risk assessment in relation to that child and b) provide the risk assessment to the court.
(3) A risk assessment, in relation to a child who is at risk of suffering harm of a particular sort, is an assessment of the risk of that harm being suffered by the child.
If ordered to carry out an investigation and report, recommendations might include:
The Judge may direct CAFCASS to investigate certain issues related to the applications that the parents (or possibly others such as grandparents) are making. In some circumstances, a Judge may leave this to the CAFCASS Officer to decide which issues are relevant.
When writing a report, the CAFCASS Officer should be mindful of the Welfare Checklist. The Welfare Checklist is set out in the main legislation which covers family law, The Children Act 1989, and sets out the matters which should be considered by the court when making decisions which affect a child´s upbringing. These include:
While the Judge ultimately decides what will happen to the children, if asked to report, the CAFCASS Officer´s recommendation will carry a great deal of weight, especially since the judge will consider their opinion to be impartial and focussed on the children´s needs. For this reason it is important to familiarise yourself with their role and the standards they are supposed to adhere to.
When CAFCASS have concluded an investigation, they will write a report for the Judge. This report could include details of the family´s circumstances, the wishes of the parents and children and the CAFCASS Officer´s opinion as to the outcome which would be in the children´s best interests.
In relation to the report, it is important to be aware of the standards that CAFCASS should adhere to. The CAFCASS Officer should:
That depends on the issues which the Judge has asked CAFCASS to investigate. The investigation may include visits to both parents´ homes, meeting the children, meetings at the CAFCASS offices, discussions with relatives and family friends, and discussions with the family GP and the children´s school.
Be aware that, if CAFCASS are asked to contact your GP, they should not be commenting on medical matters such as mental health. The OFSTED Inspection into East Midlands CAFCASS in March 2008 was critical of CAFCASS Officers having made comments on areas outside of their field of expertise or training.
The CAFCASS Officer has a duty to provide the parents and children with as much information as possible regarding the proposed report content and recommendations.
At the hearing where the Judge instructs CAFCASS to carry out an investigation, the Judge will set a timetable which should detail when the report should be filed with the Court and sent to each parents´ solicitors. Court rules state this should be at least five days before the hearing where the recommendations of the report will be considered.
If you have not received the report by the date set out in the timetable, contact the Children and Family Reporter as a matter of urgency and discuss the delay with your solicitor if you have one.
Ensure you have sufficient time to consider what the CAFCASS Officer has said in their report. If you feel you have not, be prepared to ask the court in writing to adjourn the hearing (when the report would be considered) to a later date.
Depending on the circumstances, you might also consider writing a letter, addressed to the Judge, setting out that the report has not been filed in time, and that due to the delay, you will have insufficient time to consider the report´s contents. In such circumstances, you may wish to ask the Judge to adjourn the hearing (set to consider the report).
If there are inaccuracies in the report, write to the CAFCASS Officer without delay asking for the report to be corrected.
A common mistake that parents make is to believe that a CAFCASS Officer is being critical of them, when the Officer is simply repeating allegations that the other parent has made. Your opportunity to defend against the other party´s allegations, should they be sufficiently serious, should come in court.
If you disagree with the recommendations within the report and/or find it contains factual inaccuracies, you are likely to want to make the court aware of this, and cross-examine (question) the CAFCASS Officer in court. The Officer will normally only attend court if directed to do so by the Judge. If there are aspects of the report which you disagree with, you should consider asking the Judge to direct that the CAFCASS Officer attend court so they may be questioned on their written evidence (the Section 7 Report).
You also may wish to enter a ´Position Statement´ into court upon receipt and consideration of the report, but before the next hearing. In this, you might choose to set out what parts of the report (if any) cause you concern. Briefly set out those concerns (or alternatively comment that you are in agreement with the CAFCASS Officer´s recommendations) and hand your Position Statement into the court administration department. Also deliver it to the other party and CAFCASS, ideally 48 hours before the next hearing. This pre-warns the Judge of any issues which may need to be considered and allows time to consider your ´position´ on their report.
While technically, any statement should be requested by the court, in practice, most Judges are appreciative of being pre-warned of any issues which may arise at a hearing. Be aware though that on rare occasions, a Judge may refused to accept the Position Statement if he did not direct that the parties should prepare one. The key is to keep a Position Statement short, ideally to a couple of pages. Do not assume that any statement has been read prior to walking into court, as time pressures on the judiciary sometimes prevent this. Make sure you raise any issues verbally as well.
A Judge may sometimes request that the charity, the National Child Advocacy Service prepare a report for the court as an alternative to CAFCASS. NYAS is generally well regarded by the courts and families.
If Social Services have previously been involved with your family, the Judge may ask them write a report or have CAFCASS or NYAS contact them.
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Michael Robinson © 2014
Family law information for parents whose children are resident in England and Wales
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