The Association of Lawyers for Children (ALC) has said it is “deeply concerned” by a recent agreement entered into by Cafcass and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.
Published last month, the joint agreement is intended to set out how social workers in both local authorities and those acting as guardians in family proceedings can better work together during care proceedings and pre-proceedings in the family courts.
The agreement, the two organisations, said:
- confirms a ‘culture of urgency’ for children and young people
- acknowledges the pressure on the care system and sets out how local authorities and Cafcass aim to work together to secure swift outcomes for children, young people and their families
- recognises the distinct roles social workers and guardians play and
- provides a framework for resolving disputes between professionals.
The agreement applies to both care proceedings and work to divert cases away from court, where this is the right thing to do for a child, the two organisations said.
However, in a response published this week, the ALC said: “In putting its name to this document, Cafcass is losing sight of the importance of the independent role of the Children’s Guardian in public law proceedings.
“That independence lies at the heart of what the Guardian service stands for – not least for children but also for parents and families and it is a cornerstone for public confidence in the service.”
It added: “We do not dispute that it is essential for guardians and local authority social workers to liaise closely and to co-operate to the greatest extent that their respective roles allow. This Agreement, however, goes far beyond that.”
The ALC argued that the advice given to guardians in the document by their own chief executive was “misleading, and may result in guardians neglecting their legal duties under the Children Act 1989 and the Family Procedure Rules 2010”.
The Association’s response criticised the agreement for “explicitly advocating the brokering by Cafcass of a ‘consensus’ with the local authority, in which the court is only involved if and to the extent that brokerage fails”.
It added: “The combination of the principle of achieving consensus with the proposed, unregulated, roll-out of the Cafcass Plus scheme, means that there are likely to be situations where the court advisory service plays a decisive role in cases that never reach court.
“We cannot imagine that Parliament intended that Cafcass would use the powers given to it to undermine its own independence and, without parliamentary approval, effectively circumvent the role of the court. We are also concerned that the role of parents merits only the briefest mention. The emphasis is on agreement between Cafcass and the local authority.”
The ALC said the parents were at the centre of child protection proceedings and failure to involve them was likely to infringe their Article 6 and/or 8 rights as well as seriously undermining their confidence in the independence of the guardian.
The Association also criticised an apparent lack of consultation on the agreement, and claimed the document was based on a number of what the ALC considered to be “erroneous beliefs”.
Cafcass and the ADCS have been approached for comment.