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President of family division "concerned" about family justice professionals

The Rt Hon Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division has stated that he is "genuinely concerned" about the long-term wellbeing of professionals working in the family justice system.

The president of the family division, who is addressing 'Wisdom from Failure: a national child protection conference' in February, said judges, magistrates, CAFCASS officers, social workers are attempting to work at, and often well beyond, capacity.

"I am genuinely concerned about the long-term well-being of all those who are over-working at this high and unsustainable level," said McFarlane. "Some have predicted that, if the current situation continues, the Family Justice system will “collapse” or “fall over”, but, as I have said before, I do not think systems collapse in these circumstances. Systems simply grind on; it is people who may “collapse” or “fall over”."

Speaking at the Association of Lawyers for Children Conference, McFarlane's speech outlined that:

- In the 10 years from 2007, the number of children and young people under age 18 in England rose by 6.4% to nearly 11.9 million.

- The Association of Directors of Children's Services reported that the ‘toxic trio’ of factors that were likely to trigger social work intervention (namely domestic abuse, mental health difficulties and substance misuse) continued to be prominent in many cases but that domestic abuse (in those authorities which gave this detail) was present in 50% of all safeguarding cases and had significantly risen in prominence in the past year.

- There has been a 22% increase in the number of referrals about safeguarding concerns about a child.

- The proportion of children (set as the number of 0 to 17 year olds for every 10,000) who are the subject of an initial child protection investigation under Children Act 1989, s 47 more than doubled from 80 per 10,000 in 2009/10 to 168 per 10,000 in 2017/18

- The number of children on formal ‘child protection plans’ has increased by 102% in the ten years to 2017/18.

"The central point arising from the ADCS data is that, by whatever measure one takes, the total number of children who are now within the child care system as a whole has risen very markedly, and more recently with increased rapidity, during the past ten years," said McFarlane.

The number of those whose cases are of sufficient concern to justify court proceedings has also risen. In 2014/15 the Family Courts in England received 11,159 applications for a care order, but in 2016/17 this rose to 14,599 and in 2017/18 the figure was just slightly lower at 14,226.

McFarlane said this additional caseload, alongside the similar rise in private law cases, falls to be dealt with by the same limited number of judges, magistrates, court staff, CAFCASS officers, social workers, local authority lawyers, and family lawyers in private practice and "these professional human resources are finite".

While these professionals were "just about coping with the workload in the system as it was until two years ago", and were largely meeting the need to complete the cases within reasonable time limits, in the current system "each of the professional human beings that I have just listed, is attempting to work at, and often well beyond, capacity", he aded.

In fact, one designated Family Judge told McFarlane recently that the workload and the pressure are “remorseless and relentless”.

"It is because of the high level of concern that I have for all of those working in the system that I have made addressing the rise in numbers, as I have said, my Number One priority. Other issues that come to The President, important though they may be, must take second place," said McFarlane.

He added that “austerity” cuts had reduced the resources available to a social worker seeking to support a family in the community. The more limited availability of resources such as “Sure Start”, or, more simply, funds to pay a social work assistant to visit a family once or twice a week , were said to have reduced the options available to social workers, thereby making it more likely that the option of issuing care proceedings, which of course is always there, would be chosen.

Furthermore, in addition, the introduction of Universal Credit and the Housing Benefit cap were also said to have reduced the resources available to parents and the wider family where a child is in need.

"Substantial changes need to be considered to the court process when dealing with disputes between parents about the arrangements for their children. In addition, and more generally, there is a pressing need to manage the expectations of separating parents, at the earliest stage, as to what going to court involves and what a court can, and cannot, do in such cases," he concluded.

Rt. Hon. Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division
Key Note Address: “Crisis; What Crisis?” Association of Lawyers for Children Conference 2018

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