Many separating parents reach agreement about arrangements for their children without court involvement. The government wants to encourage as many families as possible to come to an agreement that is safe for children and is in their best interests. Research shows it is emotionally damaging for children to be at the centre of conflict between their parents. Separating parents will be encouraged to use mediation before going to court. Before an application for a contact or residence order is accepted by a court, the applicant is required to attend a Mediation and Information Assessment meeting to see if mediation is suitable for them.
Mediation aims to help people to resolve disagreements through discussions involving an independent third party - a mediator. It is always advisable to use a properly trained and accredited mediator. Cafcass or your solicitor will be able to supply information regarding suitable bodies providing mediation services in your area.
First Directions Hearing
When parents apply to a court to resolve issues about their children, the court tells Cafcass about the application. Cafcass will undertake safeguarding checks with police and local authorities to find out if there any risks to children. A Cafcass officer may ring parents to ask if they have any safety or welfare concerns. They will write to the court about any welfare or risk issues raised by the safeguarding checks.
The Cafcass officer, sometimes called a Family Court Adviser or a Children and Family Reporter, will be at court for the First Directions Hearing. They may speak to both parties separately to see if it is possible for them to reach an agreement at this stage. This is also called conciliation.
There are a number of possible outcomes from the First Directions Hearing. These include:
- The parents may reach agreement
- The court may refer to a mediation service
- The court may adjourn the case so that parents can attend a Separating Parents Information Programme (SPIP).
- The Court may arrange a Finding of Fact hearing to decide what has happened in the past where this is in dispute, e.g. whether there has been domestic violence
- The Court may refer to a Domestic Violence perpetrator programme (DVPP)
- A Family Group Conference may be organised by Cafcass
- Contact Activities including supervised contact
- Court may order a Child's Wishes and Feelings report from Cafcass
- The Court may ask Cafcass to provide a section 7 welfare report about issues of residence and/or contact.
Cafcass officer/Children and Family Reporter
A Children and Family Reporter (CFR) is a qualified and experienced social worker. They can be appointed where someone, often a parent, has applied to the court for a child arrangements order under the Children Act 1989 and the court wants an independent view of what has been happening and what should happen in the child's life.
When preparing a welfare report the Cafcass officer will usually spend time talking to the child on their own, maybe in the Cafcass office, to explore their wishes and feelings and what they would like to happen. The CFR will also talk to parents, relatives and other people such as teachers and health visitors. They will try to help parents listen to what the child has to say and explore whether it is possible to reach an agreement that is safe for the child and meets the child's needs. They will then write their report to explain to the court what they think should happen. The Children and Family Reporter can be called to give evidence and may be cross-examined.
More information about the role of Cafcass workers in private law cases is available here.
Rule 16.4 Guardian in private law cases
Unlike in public law cases, children are not usually made parties to the proceedings in private law cases. However, the court can make a child a party where it considers the child's interests will not otherwise be protected. A guardian can then be appointed for the child under Rule 16.4 Family Proceedings Rules 2010 where their welfare requires independent representation. The guardian will appoint a solicitor for the child and can present evidence to court on behalf of the child. Rule 16.4 guardians may be appointed via Cafcass or in some cases via NYAS (National Youth Advocacy Service).