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Prioritisation protocol returns to family court to help ease pressure

By Bianca Castro >>

(26 September 2023)

Rising numbers of private law family applications will see a prioritisation protocol – introduced during the pandemic – used in London courts in a bid to reduce filing times.

Cafcass, which represents the interests of children and young people in the family court, will use its prioritisation protocol for cases where children and families need ‘a more timely response to their difficulties’.

Discussions between the public body and judges for West London, East London and the Central family courts have led to activating the prioritisation, first introduced in 2021 to manage the challenges arising from the pandemic and its aftermath.

‘Long-standing and increasing’ pressures on the family justice system in London, where there has been a 27% increase in new private law applications in the last 12 months, and additional work caused by ongoing delays has resulted in the protocol being reintroduced.

Staffing capacity and maintaining staff numbers are also one of the reasons behind activating the prioritisation protocol in London.

The aim is to enable a ‘timely’ allocation of higher risk children’s cases, maintain safe caseloads for family court advisers, restore capacity for management support, supervision and oversight, maintain the quality of practise and provide a single point of contact for families before their case is allocated to a family court adviser.

In an announcement of the protocol being used again, the body said: ‘Cafcass has worked closely with family justice partners in London both during and since the pandemic to understand the local challenges and to find ways to address them. Although these efforts have reduced local pressures and prevented the need for prioritisation for over two years, the current situation is not sustainable without this action.’

A number of courts which used prioritisation to help manage workloads have stopped using it and two further courts are expected to not require it by the end of the year.

An assistant service manager will undertake a case review to determine which should be prioritised for allocation and which can be held in an ‘Allocation Hub’. The types of cases considered less urgent will be agreed locally between Cafcass and the judiciary.

The body hopes to reduce filing times for priority cases to within 14 weeks with less urgent children’s cases held in the hub and overseen by the assistant service manager until allocated to a family court advisor, at least eight weeks before the filing date. The assistant service manager will monitor new information and, if the circumstances for the child and family change, will bring forward allocation to a family court adviser.

A ‘post assessment hub’ will also be opened for Greater London where court-ordered work has been completed but the hearing is listed more than six weeks in the future.

Cafcass chief executive Jacky Tiotto said the decision to start prioritisation protocol in London had ‘not been taken lightly’.

She added: ‘The rising number of private law family court applications and the additional work caused by delay has meant that we have had to make the difficult decision to activate our procedures to prioritise the most urgent work after the first hearing in private family law cases.

‘The use of an Allocation Hub with close oversight of the work that is not allocated to a Family Court Adviser and providing a single point of contact for families has been an effective way of managing similar pressures in other family court areas.

‘I am confident that with continuing collaboration and effective partnership, the action we are taking will help to ease some of the pressures we are all facing.’

As well as London, the protocol is currently in use in Greater Manchester, Essex and Suffolk, and Norwich. Public law cases will not be affected.

The announcement follows the Law Society’s renewed call for fresh investment into the family justice system to help worsening delays.

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)