When parents separate, one of the most important things from the point of view of both them and their children, is to sort out the practical arrangements for the children, as to who they live with/the time they spend with each parent. It is always the best approach if parents can agree these arrangements amicably, but sometimes, this is not always possible, and if that is the case, parents may need the help of the Court to put arrangements in place.
If the help of the Court is needed to deal with what the arrangements should be, an application can be made to the Court for a Child Arrangements Order to be put in place. When an application is made, the organisation called ‘Cafcass’ is involved. Cafcass stands for the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, and they are independent qualified social workers. Cafcass can be involved in situations whereby a Local Authority has had to make an application to the Court if there are concerns as to children being at risk of harm, and these are generally known as ‘public law’ proceedings. Cafcass can, as above, also be involved where parents are separating and cannot agree on arrangements for their children, which are generally known as ‘private law’ proceedings.
In private law proceedings, to help the Court prior to there being an initial Court hearing, a Cafcass officer will usually contact parents to discuss the situation on a general basis, so that each parent can explain their concerns to the Cafcass officer, and the Cafcass officer will also normally take steps to contact the relevant Local Authority and the police before a first hearing, to check if there are any concerns that the Court need to be aware of as far as the children are concerned. Before the first hearing, Cafcass will normally write to the Court with what is called a Safeguarding Enquiries Report, to give the Court the initial information they have obtained by speaking to the parents and making their checks with the police and Local Authority, as to anything that may be relevant, so that when the Court deals with the first appointment, that information is available to help the Court in considering the way forward and next steps.
A Cafcass officer will also normally be on hand at a first appointment that the Court lists to try and help parents have discussions as to whether a compromise can be reached, and whether any agreement can be put in place with their help and input in discussing those matters initially.
In some circumstances, it can be that the Court will take the view that Cafcass need to have more detailed involvement in an application, and the Court can ask a Cafcass officer to prepare a more detailed report, normally after speaking with both parents, and potentially the child concerned if they are old enough and it is thought to be appropriate. The Cafcass officer having done that, will consider what they believe the best interests of the child is, weighing up the overall circumstances.
The detailed report that the Cafcass officer prepares, is normally then sent to the Court and to the parents, so that what they recommend can be considered, to see if any agreement can be reached, or if it cannot be, it will be used by the Court to consider things overall in making a decision at a final hearing if that is needed.
What Cafcass recommends and advises, is not legally binding as far as the Court is concerned, but it is an important document that the Court takes on board in making decisions, because of the work that Cafcass has done with the child and the parents.
A Cafcass officer can also be involved in Children Act proceedings in a different way, as in some circumstances, the Court can find it necessary for a child to become involved in the proceedings themselves, albeit this is not that usual, and a Cafcass officer will, in that circumstance, be appointed by the Court to act on the child’s behalf. The Cafcass officer in that case will be known as a Guardian, and will represent the child concerned specifically, usually through a solicitor who will also be appointed to advise legally.
Cafcass can also stay involved with children and their parents after a Child Arrangements Order has been made in some circumstances, and this can be via what is called a Family Assistance Order. If the Court thinks that it is appropriate, they can make a Family Assistance Order whereby a Cafcass officer helps the parents and the child in putting in place and helping to make work the Order that the Court has made. The Cafcass officer, can update the Court as to how the arrangements are going, and can make further recommendations to the Court if they think that these are necessary.
The above is not exhaustive in relation to the role that Cafcass take in relation to matters concerning children, but relates to the most frequent ways that they are usually involved in Children Act proceedings.
At Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice, we have experienced expert solicitors who can advise in relation to all family matters including Children Act proceedings, to help clients obtain the best and most appropriate outcome.
Author: Sarah Wyburn