An increasing number of private law family applications will see the return of the ‘pandemic’ prioritisation protocol, which was used in London courts in an attempt to reduce filing times.
Cafcass, when ordered by the London courts to assess the safety and welfare of children and subsequently advise the court on the best interests in private law family court proceedings, will use its Prioritisation Protocol. This is to provide children and families ‘a more timely response to their difficulties’.
The final decision to activate prioritisation was made following discussions with the judges at three courts: Central Family Courts, East London and West London. Family lawyers will be family with the Prioritisation Protocol, as it was first introduced in 2021 to manage the various challenges that arose during the pandemic, and the aftermath. An ‘Allocation Hub’ will be created to hold the less urgent children’s cases.
The Cafcass Prioritisation Protocol is currently in use in London, Greater Manchester, Essex & Suffolk and Norwich.
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. The reasons for activating the Prioritisation Protocol in London include:
- The long-standing and increasing pressures on the local family justice system which are a result of a rising number of private family law applications – this being particularly acute in London, where there has been a 27% increase in new private law applications received by Cafcass between April and July 2023 (compared to the same period in 2022);
- The additional work caused by the ongoing delay; and
- The challenges for Cafcass and its partners in maintaining staffing capacity.
Prioritisation reduces pressure on Family Court Advisers and their managers, enabling them to maintain the quality of practice and service to children, families and the courts.
“The decision to activate our prioritisation protocol in London has not been taken lightly. Over the past two years, there has been a high degree of collaboration and support from local family court judges in maintaining the current system and preventing prioritisation. However, 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. The tested process of prioritisation will enable us to do what we always aim to do at Cafcass which is to work for and in the best interests of children and young people involved in family court proceedings.”