Leading Judge warns of ‘imminent crisis’ in family courts
The impact of workload pressures on the family court system has become the subject of public focus over the past months.
A recent report focussing on cases of inappropriate contact orders putting children at risk was aired on BBC Look North at the beginning of the year. Napo was asked to provide information for the report which was looking at a number of incidents in the Lincolnshire area, and Napo’s AGS Dean Rogers, was interviewed for the programme. Dean tried to explain that although the system worked well when risk was identified there was serious concern that workload pressures meant that warning signs might not be spotted. This could mean that unsupervised contact was given to fathers where the mother had left an abusive relationship putting children at risk. However the main thrust of Napo’s arguments about workloads was overlooked in favour of the more sensational aspects of the cases involved.
In November last year the Guardian reported on the sustained increase in the number of child care cases. The number of care cases being dealt with by the family courts in England and Wales has risen from an average of about 6,500 a year before 2009 to about 15,000 in 2017.
So alarming is the situation that the president of the family division, Sir James Munby, issued an emergency statement saying that the family court service in England and Wales is facing a “clear and imminent crisis”. Sir James said that he could not simply ask lawyers or court staff to work harder and cautioned that standards should not be sacrificed in order to handle more cases. “The fact is that, on the ground, the system is – the people who make the system work are – at full stretch. We cannot, and I have for some time now been making clear that I will not, ask people to work harder. Everyone – everyone – is working as hard as they can”, he said.
A Napo survey of workloads across the whole of the union’s membership conducted in 2017 showed a high level of stress experienced by members in the family courts.
One respondent said “I feel the workload impacts on the quality of my work. This has also negatively impacted on both my health (resulting in sick leave) and my family life. The high caseloads within Cafcass contribute to very high stress levels both for me and my colleagues and I am aware of several colleagues (as well as myself) breaking down in tears as the result of unmanageable workloads.”
While another said: “I am totally exhausted at present. I have to work from 9am to 9pm. Cafcass’ expectations are unacceptable. We have a high number of cases needing allocations and insufficient staff to manage them. More staff are leaving than joining which means an increase in our workloads. We have a workload allocations system which is useless as it you are in high red you should not get any new cases, but we do. Many people are on sick leave due to struggling with the high caseloads.”
Napo will now be contacting the new Minister to discuss these urgent concerns.