This page explains the role of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service in the court process, including the safeguarding checks that they carry out and explaining section 7 reports.
Cafcass is an independent organisation tasked with looking after the interests of children involved in family proceedings. Cafcass work with children and their families and advises the court on what it considers to be in the children’s best interests.
Family Court Advisers become involved in cases when children are subject to an application for care or supervision proceedings by social services (public law) or in an adoption applications. Cafcass also provide assistance when parents who are separating or divorcing can’t agree on arrangements for their children (private law).
In cases relating to child contact disputes (such as for a Child Arrangements Order) Cafcass will usually carry out certain checks prior to the first hearing. This will involve them contacting the police and Local Authority to see if there are any known safeguarding or welfare concerns about the child(ren) involved. Cafcass will also usually speak to each parent (usually be telephone) to give them an opportunity to explain any safeguarding or welfare concerns which they have. Cafcass will then prepare a safeguarding letter; this is a short report which Cafcass make available to the court containing the outcomes of the safeguarding checks and any potential welfare issues which have been identified. The safeguarding letter is usually made available to the court at least three days prior to the hearing.
At the first hearing the court will determine the future role of Cafcass in the proceedings. If there are no welfare concerns then a Cafcass officer may still be involved to try to assist the parties in coming to an agreement with minimal further court proceedings. If parents are unable to reach an agreement or there are welfare concerns then the Cafcass officer may be asked to carry out further work with the family and prepare a more detailed report on the welfare issues.
The court will often ask Cafcass to prepare a report which will assist in determining the outcome of a family court dispute. A Cafcass officer will prepare this report after meeting with both parties and the child (alone where possible and only if the child has sufficient maturity and understanding). This more detailed report is known as a Section 7 Report.
When writing a report the Cafcass officer will have specific regard to what is known as the ‘welfare checklist’.
This is not a checklist in the traditional sense but instead acts as guidance when considering what is in the best interests of any child(ren). The law is clear, that when making any decisions concerning a child the welfare of that child shall be the paramount consideration.
The Cafcass officer, and eventually the Judge, will have considered the following when forming their conclusions:
- the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of his age and understanding)
- his physical, emotional and educational needs
- the likely effect on him of any change in his circumstances
- his age, sex, background and any characteristics of his which the court considers relevant
- any harm which he has suffered or is at risk of suffering
- how capable each of his parents, and any other person in relation to whom the court considers the question to be relevant, is of meeting his needs
- the range of powers available to the court under this Act in the proceedings in question.
That is not to say that either the Cafcass officer or the Judge will go through and tick things off of the checklist, but rather they will use the above as a guide to inform their decision making and come to an overall conclusion based on the child(ren)’s welfare.
The Cafcass report will be sent to the court, once finalised, and a copy will likely be sent to all parties unless directed otherwise by the court.
The parties can argue against the recommendations of the Cafcass report and dispute any factual inaccuracies in the court hearing following the report being finalised. Furthermore, the Cafcass officer who conducted the report can be asked to attend the court and be subject to cross-examination.
If a party intends to contest the content of a Cafcass report, it is important to frame a clear, concise argument and provide evidence where possible in support of their position.
Family Assistance Order
Family Assistance Orders are set out in section 16 of the Children Act 1989. The courts are able to issue a Family Assistance Order requiring a Cafcass officer or an officer from the Local Authority to “advise, assist and (where appropriate) befriend any person named in the court order”. This officer can then assist on establishing, improving and maintaining contact where a Child Arrangements Order has been made.
The Family Assistance Order can be proposed by the court or by the Cafcass officer involved in the case. The Cafcass guidance on Family Assistance Orders suggests that the following be considered when deciding whether a Family Assistance Order is suitable:
- Whether the child’s welfare and safety would be improved if a Family Assistance Order was in force.
- Whether the issues in dispute be identified and given an achievable target suitable for a Family Assistance Order
- Whether the parents are willing or able to cooperate with the Family Assistance Order and the officer involved.
- Whether the parents are able to separate their feelings from the needs of their children to make the Family Assistance Order a suitable arrangement once the order is made.
- Whether the aim of the Family Assistance Order could be reached without the support of Cafcass or the Local Authority. For example, whether the parents could work together to understand the child’s needs, develop and maintain contact without intervention.
- Whether the child (subject to age and understanding) been able to explain their wishes and feelings in regards to what they would like to happen?
- Whether there any other resources which could help the Family Assistance Order succeed for the child and family. For example help from other family members or agencies
- If a report is necessary at the end or during the Family Assistance Order what report would be most appropriate
These orders are voluntary and require the consent of all parties involved. If a party feels it is unsuitable to have the Family Assistance Order in place the judge should not make the order.
The Family Assistance Order can be used where it is difficult for the family to deal with certain issues without the help of Cafcass or the Local Authority.
What will happen once a Family Assistance Order is granted?
The officer will help set goals to achieve during the period of the Family Assistance Order, and review progress to see whether these goals are being met. These goals can be amended or added to where the officer feels it is necessary to do so.
The officer is able to report back to the court any matters relating to the section 8 order. They should make clear the circumstances in which the case may need to be referred back to court. The officer can make recommendations to the court that the section 8 order be varied or discharged if necessary. It may be necessary to report back to the court regarding the progress of the case or to request an extension of the Family Assistance Order. The officer cannot amend or suspend the order themselves; their role is to refer it back to the court to reconsider the order.
What is the duration of a Family Assistance Order?
A Family Assistance Order will be in force for 12 months unless the court specifies otherwise.