Rising demand, backlogs and staff absences due to Covid-19 have increased the strain on an already overstretched family justice system, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) warned.
As a consequence, tragically, ‘lower priority’ child and family cases, whether public or private law, will be left ‘unallocated’ where there are no safeguarding concerns or other social work involvement.
The move to prioritise cases has been introduced in the South Yorkshire and Humber region, but with mounting caseloads across the country Cafcass has not ruled out the possibility of extending the prioritisation model to other regions.
Jacky Tiotto, chief executive of the organisation, said: “Taking the decision to stop allocating all the work that comes to us has been one of the most difficult of my professional career.
“There are no easy answers when trying to balance the needs of children and families against the finite capacity of professional social work staff.
“We are holding at the front of our minds that each case we do not allocate involves one or more children who need our help, and we are working closely with our partners to explore all the options available.
“We are monitoring our caseloads and the wellbeing of our staff to support them to be able to do the best they can to serve the children’s best interests. I truly am so sorry it has come to this moment.”
During November 2020, Cafcass had almost 37,000 open cases – up 19% compared to the previous year – with a 16% rise in public law and 21% rise in private law cases.
Cafcass said particular pressures had impacted South Yorkshire and Humber with a 23% rise in public law cases in October to November, alongside Covid-related staffing absences.
On whether extending the prioritisation model to other, increasingly overloaded regions was next, Cafcass said it “continues to review the need for prioritising allocation of work in other areas of the country and [we] will be working with our partners over the coming weeks to find solutions that may prevent this from arising.”
The professional body representing family court advisors (FCAs) said the decision was the consequence of “years of underinvestment” in a family courts system that was already struggling before the pandemic.
The news comes after AlphaBiolabs reported a surge in drug and alcohol testing for child protection cases during the first country-wide lockdown.
An 87% increase in demand led the company to invest in additional laboratory equipment and 16 new staff to carry out the testing on behalf of local authorities, social workers and family law courts.
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