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A Week in the Life – Cafcass Legal

Jeremy Ford, Solicitor, describes the many and varied roles carried out by the team of lawyers at Cafcass Legal.

Jeremy Ford, Solicitor, Cafcass Legal

Jeremy Ford, Solicitor, Cafcass Legal 

Within Cafcass Legal we are a small team of lawyers, five in all with a variety of backgrounds.  We are based in Bloomsbury at the National Office for Cafcass working alongside the policy, HR, customer services, library, communications, analytics, finance teams and, most importantly, the social work practitioners for various teams across London.

We are often mistakenly referred to as the Cafcass High Court team.  In fact, they are a distinct team of practitioners, with whom we work very closely, who are appointed to report to the court in High Court cases.

Our role is to advise the organisation on all matters pertaining to Family Law, Civil claims, Data Protection, provide in house training to practitioners, accept invitations to act as Advocate to the Court and to represent children in the High Court through their High Court Team guardians/parental order reporters.

The work is varied, challenging and extremely rewarding.

At least once a week we take charge of the duty phone – sometimes twice per week if a colleague is at a hearing or on holiday.  We receive calls from any Cafcass officer (1,800 practitioners approximately across the country) who encounters a legal problem in a case – this ranges from advice on leave to remove, requests for disclosure from the police, representation for minor mothers not the subject of proceedings, who requires leave to issue an application, litigants recording meetings/sometimes even court hearings, and many more.  On a duty day we expect to receive between 10-30 calls (the record is 50!) which invariably leads to research, consideration of papers and further action – so any plans you may have had to prepare a position statement or work on a particular case fall away; a firm grasp of the Red Book is a necessity.

On a duty day we also consider requests for separate legal representation ("SLR").  This arises within public law proceedings where a child disagrees with the welfare recommendations of their guardian.  If the child is competent and wishes to give instructions to their solicitor directly this leaves the guardian unrepresented.  If the court grants permission for the guardian to be represented pursuant to FPR 16.21(2)(c) an application can be made to Cafcass Legal by a practitioner for SLR.  If the application is successful we will either represent the guardian in the proceedings or fund a solicitor from private practice. If the request is refused we can provide legal advice over the telephone throughout the proceedings.

We also take calls from Independent Reviewing Officers who may wish to discuss specific cases before deciding whether to make a referral pursuant to s.25B(3)(a) Children Act 1989 if they are concerned about the actions of inactions of a local authority.  When a referral is made, there is a very tight turnaround time within which Cafcass has to conduct its own assessment of the circumstances and decide, with advice from the legal team, what action, if any, to take. This might include bringing civil proceedings such as judicial review or a free standing Human Rights Act 1998 application or further Children Act 1989 proceedings.

We sometimes receive calls from members of the judiciary to discuss certain topics such as whether a child should be joined as a party, whether we would accept an invitation to act as Advocate to the Court or simply with the clear message – 'get down to court to assist, see you at 10:30!'

NHS Trusts, through their lawyers, will also contact us prior to issuing proceedings so that we are able to provide representation in time-sensitive medical treatment cases.  If we are appointed, these cases do take priority and it is a considerable logistic process to swiftly appoint a solicitor and guardian with capacity, who can see the child, consider the papers, and report to the court within what is usually a very short timeframe.  We have acquired a specialism in this area and have been involved in most of the reported cases in this field.

We provide in house training to practitioners across the country, delivering seminars by way of Legal Roadshows addressing various topics relevant to Cafcass.  Once a month or so one of us will be setting off on the early train to various far flung parts of the country.  Cafcass has a fantastic set-up for remote working so the train journey represents a good opportunity to catch up on e-mails. 

The representation we provide to the High Court Team is, in my opinion, the highlight of the job.  We work very closely with them and provide representation in a wide variety of cases ranging from child abduction, wardship – stranded spouses, international cases, medical treatment, radicalisation, surrogacy, Children Act – termination of PR, intractable contact disputes, immunisation, leave to remove, application of Biia and Hague 1996, reporting restriction orders, to name but a few.  We usually conduct our own advocacy and during the legal term appear two or three times per week.  For the longer or exceptionally complicated cases we will brief specialist counsel.

We probably receive four or five requests to act as Advocate to the Court per year.  The function of the role is to provide the court with assistance on the relevant law and its application to the facts of the case.  It is a truly independent role as an Advocate does not represent any of the parties.  These are usually particularly challenging as there is rarely a simple answer – if there was a High Court judge would not be asking for an Advocate!  Predominantly such requests arise in the context of surrogacy cases, be it in relation to domicile, payments to surrogates or where a surrogate cannot be found.  The most recent intellectually challenging Advocate case was that of Re JS (Disposal of Body) [2016] EWHC 2859 (Fam).

I haven't yet mentioned the "other" duty phone.  One of us holds the out of hours phone once per month for one week at a time, primed and ready to be called upon if necessary in any out of hours court application.  These are usually medical treatment cases where an urgent decision is required.  Again, Cafcass's remote system of working makes this task manageable when that call comes in.

We maintain a legal page on the Cafcass intranet updating practitioners by way of case alerts where we highlight principles that apply directly to their practice – a perennial task due to the advent of increased reporting.  We also keep an up to date page addressing help and information on different legal topics.

A smaller, but no less important, part of our role is to advise and represent the organisation in respect of any civil claims that may arise.  This can be very time consuming but keeps the mind active as a firm grasp of the Civil Procedure Rules is required.

Most of us also sit on various committees, be it the Family Procedure Rules, Resolution and Law Society Children's Committee and are often invited to deliver seminars externally which is something we all enjoy.

So, when we are not engaged in the above we are busy considering case papers and preparing skeleton arguments.  The work involves a lot of juggling and requires discipline coupled with flexibility as it is rare that a day goes entirely as planned.  That being said, we have the immense privilege of working with a highly dedicated team of knowledgeable social workers with exposure to the great legal minds operating in the High Court – you can't help but learn something new every day and improve as a family lawyer.

Jeremy Ford is a solicitor at Cafcass Legal, Mediator and Children's Arbitrator. He sits on the Resolution Children's Committee.