Children who are brought before the courts in Care Proceedings are at great risk. They are at risk of continuing to suffer neglect or abuse – even sometimes to the point of death – if they are not promptly removed from that situation OR they are at risk, if wrongly removed, of suffering all the well-known disadvantages – sometimes including neglect and abuse – within the public care system. These children are at the very top of any reasonable priority list for the fullest possible degree of protection and, as the law says, everybody concerned must treat their interests as paramount.
It is therefore surprising to see three of the great white sharks of this child welfare / legal system – Sir Mark Potter, President of the Family Division, Chris Mayer CBE, CEO of HM Courts Service and Anthony Douglas CBE, CEO of CAFCASS – all putting their names (and signatures!) to The President’s Interim Guidance For England which guidance essentially says some of these top priority children are to be less of a top priority than others at least as to whether they get their own Children’s Guardian. These Guardians were created in the mid 1980’s to protect children from careless decision making, to ensure the child’s individual voice was heard and fully represented in court. In 2001 the CAFCASS was created and is now responsible for providing Guardians to the family courts. CAFCASS cannot currently meet the need for Guardians and considerable backlogs of cases awaiting allocation have been built up.
This, it is said, is because a lot more care cases are being put before the courts by local authorities in the wake of the Baby P (Peter) case. Well, actually there was a considerable reduction in the number of cases being put before the courts in 2008 and early 2009 followed by an increase, at least partly related to the Baby P scandal, from about March 2009 to the present.
CAFCASS came into being on 1st April 2001. Before then the Guardian system was rather ramshackle organisationally but very highly regarded for the ability of Guardians to act independently and robustly in the interests of the children whose interests they were appointed to safeguard. During those earlier years there were tragedies and scandals – the Cleveland Affair, Victoria Climbié and others – resulting in sudden peaks in the demand for Guardians. But, in those days the service reacted promptly and flexibly to peaks and troughs of demand and it was very unusual for any case to wait for more than a few days. Now, these top priority children have to wait 1, 2, 3 months or more and, if I read the President’s guidance right, some of them will not see a Guardian at all. Guess that’s shot District Judge Byron Carron’s fox.
Trying to be positive, the President’s Guidance is interim to meet an immediate crisis, is temporary (ho hum) and will cease to have effect in 2010 on the day before CAFCASS’ 9th Birthday which, appropriately falls on 1st April. By then Potter, Mayer and Douglas say “the backlog will have substantially reduced”. Perhaps I’d better check my dictionary for the precise meaning of those very careful words.