I have posted a lot recently on Cafcass and the failure to deliver the service we had got used to. I am still struggling with a case involving a 12 year old girl with proceedings issued in November last year and no Guardian in sight and the child becoming increasingly distressed that no-one is advocating her views. Back in court next week and fairly difficult to know how to take the case forward - can the foster placement contain her when she is saying she desperately wants to go home to Dad? Should she? What steps should the local authority be taking to explore this option?
The Law Gazette reports on the grave concerns of the Interdisciplinary Alliance for Children (membership including the FLBA, the AIRE Centre, ALC, CRAE, BAAF, Voice, RCPCH, NYAS, BASW) and their call to the government to take urgent action and not wait for the conclusions of the Family Justice Review. The Family Law week site also picks up this news item.
The Gazette also reports that family lawyers’ group Resolution suggested to the government’s family justice review panel last week that the burden on Cafcass could be reduced if courts directed parents to obtain private social work reports where they could afford to, instead of having them prepared at public expense. It seems to me that it is a rare case where the parents can themselves afford to pay for social work reports and they are in grave difficulties assessing the competence of particular social workers to do this job. I understand the impulse but it would not help in my case where the father is unemployed (and even if working would be unlikely to earn enough). The court can already appoint ISWs to do the work at public expense.
I started to think about the sorts of cases where a GAL's view is critical and helpful taking account of my own recent cases and conversations with solicitors appointed to represent children without the benefit of GALs.
* cases where the solicitor needs to consider whether a child is competent to give their own instructions
* cases where an interim removal decision is finely balanced - particularly with groups of children, older children, children with learning disabilities
* cases where the local authority set off from the outset with a clear view against the parents and continually fail to acknowledge the strengths of the parents or the challenges they face
* cases where the child might have something to disclose such that the solicitor will run into grave difficulties in having these conversations without another appropriate professional present
* cases where someone with social work training needs to consider whether the support plan proposed will provide sufficient support / service levels
* cases where social work practice is below par or contaminated by the management view (not that we have a policy but we very rarely support interim care orders where children are to remain with parents or are placed with relatives)
* cases where the parents and the local authority have become polarised about the nature versus nurture debate - is it parenting or ADHD / ASD?
* cases where the parents need the independent view of the GAL in order to move to a place where they can understand what is in the child's best interests and start to support it, however painful
* cases where a perfectly competent solicitor / advocate cannot meet the children or does not have the social work skills to interview them and facilitate easy communcation and lacks the time to do so (often they would not be paid to do so)
* cases where someone with those social work skills needs to understand the local resources and whether they can offer the child a service which they need
Not an exhaustive list but one which points up to me that we are missing out on vital informed advice in family cases and it starts to look like there is no case where the input of a GAL would be redundant or unnecessary. If there is a secret plan afoot to do away with Guardians and allow the lawyers to dictate the process it is a backwards step for children, in my view. It may be the case that a competent lawyer with lots of experience can do a very good job without a GAL in some cases but this is usually because they have had years of debate and discussions with good quality Guardians who enable them from time to time to manage without that specific input.
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