CAFCASS – which stands for Children and Family Court Advisory Service – is there to assist the court in children cases. They will usually be involved at the outset, as an application is lodged. The papers will be referred to them so that they can carry out safeguarding checks.
CAFCASS officers are specially trained social workers qualified to deal with children cases. The safeguarding checks involve CAFCASS contacting the police to see if they have had any involvement with the family or the individuals concerned. They also check social services records. They issue a safeguarding letter to the court before the first hearing and that will often make recommendations as to the way forward. A CAFCASS officer is likely to be present at the first hearing and will usually be asked by the court for their views on the case.
It is important to co-operate with CAFCASS as the officer assigned to the case can have a considerable influence on the outcome. This is especially true if CAFCASS is ordered to produce a report – this will happen if there are issues that the court feels need investigating. If so the CAFCASS officer will meet both parents and the child(ren). Where ever possible, depending on the age of the children involved, the children will probably be seen on their own – and that meeting might take place at school. The officer will speak to the school and any other adults that might be of influence in the family (such as a step parent or possibly a grandparent if they are involved with the day to day care).
A CAFCASS report is a comprehensive document and the court will usually rely heavily on it. The CAFCASS officer is the only person who meets both parties (away from the court and in their homes) and the children concerned. The report will usually give a reasoned conclusion and it can be very hard to persuade a court not to make an order in the recommended terms. The CAFCASS officer that prepares the report should attend the second hearing and also, if the case needs one, the final hearing. At the final hearing they will give evidence on oath and be cross-examined on the contents of the report.