The digital revolution…rolling slowly towards us…

Toshiyuki IMAI on Flickr

I've been meaning to write for a number of months about how I have been getting on with life without paper bundles. But I've had a minor setback in that pretty much ever since investing in a super shiny device on which to display all singing all dancing electronic bundles I have been delivered of nothing but pages and pages of documents in broken lever arch files which are fifth generation copies (and as such all the text is slightly fuzzy and sliding off the page into oblivion). I am beginning to wonder if the wheeled suitcase industry mafia are not putting the thumb screws on all the solicitors instructing me, to ensure that I continue to prop up their revenues as I have done for the last fifteen years. Maybe they have got wind of my attempt to remove suitcases and large handbags from my life by transferring to a backpack (thanks to a niggling suitcase/bundle induced shoulder complaint), and are wreaking their revenge.

 

It's ironic really - I've spent years grumbling about bundles delivered only electronically (usually because they arrive, russian doll like, in a million separate pdfs nested in several tiers of several threaded emails), which then have to be printed off in no particular order at the eleventh hour. But now I want one, I can't get an electronic bundle for love nor money.

 

Before the e-drought, I did a few hearings / trials using pdf Expert on my laptop before taking the plunge and investing in an ipad pro - it worked reasonably well. On the first attempt I had my bundle in hard copy in a suitcase at the back of court as a comfort blanket, but I didn't need to open it once. Somewhat ridiculously, with only one device, I had to resort to keeping my notes in a blue book, whereas I would ordinarily have typed them - you really do need two screens to really go paperless : one for the bundle and one for your xx notes / running log of the hearing. I was somewhat deflated to find that, having ditched paper, I kept being handed more and more late documents in hard copy as the hearing progressed, so that by the end of the week I had a whole file full of assorted badly photocopied and unpaginated documents that I had to keep switching to and from. But in the grand scheme of things, a ring binder's worth of irritation is nothing compared to a mighty suitcase full of back ache.

 

I've conducted a few trials / hearings where I've brought the core papers in hard copy but have been able to leave behind the stuff I'm 99% certain I won't need to refer to on my laptop, thus enabling me to travel with my cabin sized wheelie rather than my corpse sized one. This in itself is a super bonus.

 

So yes, I'm a bit frustrated that, after a promising start, I have had a limited opportunity to get to grips with e-bundles. I had hoped by now to have mastered the techniques for navigating large bundles so that I would feel confident enough to go paperless in a larger trial. Hey ho. I'll get there eventually. And in the meantime other colleagues not so jinxed as I are popping up all the time to rave about how a bit of practice with an ipad pro has revolutionised how they work. So I think the momentum is picking up, and we are beginning to reach the tipping point where all of a sudden one day ebundles will be the norm, and we will all be expected to be competent with them. I'm certainly not going to be the one left on the shore when that happens.

 

For what it's worth, I reckon that this is actually not as daunting a self-education project as I thought at first it might be. Granted, the cost of an ipad pro is pretty eye watering, but the software costs are minimal (pdf Expert seems to be used by most) and the navigation is a lot easier than I had thought it might be - as long as you have a properly indexed bundle where the majority of documents are in native pdf format (jargon alert - this means that the computer reads the file as a text document rather than an image, so it can find words in a text search and you can highlight particular lines of text). Bookmarking and highlighting features are reasonably easy once you've got to grips. The most irritating part of this new tech is the hardware itself. As someone who has avoided an ipad for years, I find its way of storing documents and really hard to get my head around. And of course, now I have a touch screen I keep pawing my laptop and wondering why it won't work. Or staring at the screen trying to remember how to make it scroll without touching it... But this too shall pass...

 

Ebundles really are becoming a thing in public law proceedings, and although some local authorities produce more user friendly bundles than others, this is the area in which ebundles are gaining most traction (no doubt because of the applicant is always a corporate party which is represented rather than a privately paying individual or litigant in person). My recent run of paper bundles has coincided with a run of private law cases, where ebundles seem to be somewhat more of a rarity. See recent HMCTS blog here for news on the public law front.

 

Apologies for the not very exciting reading. Whilst I acknowledge that an absence of me spitting feathers about idiotic, awful, impossible technology makes for rubbish blog posts, the truth is that nobody wants to see me when I'm in full Technology Rage mode. Even virtually. So far I have not had one single tantrum. Hurrah!

 

 

Feature Pic : courtesy of Toshiyuki IMAI on Flickr (creative commons licence - thanks)

New CAFCASS Guidance

The Chief Execs of CAFCASS and CAFCASS CYMRU have issued the snappily titled : GUIDANCE FROM THE CHIEF EXECUTIVES OF CAFCASS AND CAFCASS CYMRU ABOUT CHANGES IN USE OF CAFCASS PROFESSIONAL TIME TO BRING MOST BENEFIT TO CHILDREN WITHIN THE RESOURCES AVAILABLE (AKA We're doing our best, alright?*)

*I added that bit.

It was published here on 2 Jun via Family Law (Jordans). Which is odd because it appears to be a consultation, which closed on 1 Jun. Perhaps it has been internally circulated before its public outing on the Jordans website, who knows. I guess external stakeholders views weren't wanted.

So, what does it say? Well, I confess I don't understand a word of it. But it makes me a little twitchy. I've had to put some soothing flowers at the top of the post to calm me down...

I do get that it is a document prompted by the combination of limited resources and an ever-climbing workload (clue in title). We've seen such documents before from CAFCASS. Remember the time when CAFCASS ran out of Guardians, the interim guidance to deal with the temporary crisis in 2011? The menu of options for s7 "lite"? Remember "proportionate working" in the operating framework in 2014? See here for posts on Pink Tape about CAFCASS over the years if that is all a distant hazy memory to you, and this post in particular which links to the interim guidance and the menus.

It is an attempt to answer the question of how CAFCASS can do more with less. I sympathise with them. But this document is really worrying, not least for its complete lack of clarity (is it a draft, a consultation?), and ambiguity of scope (does it apply to pilot areas mentioned or everywhere? when does it come into effect?). And does it supercede the operating framework?

For a document that starts by saying the emphasis on flexibility it is strikingly restrictive in its interpretation of how CAFCASS Resource should be used.

It seems to say that CAFCASS officers should pretty much never be at court unless its a FHDRA or they are required for cross examination. Here is the actual wording :

...we think that social workers should attend court either to give evidence, when their evidence is critical to decision-making, or to hear evidence that is essential for them to hear if they are to be able to carry out their own work and to make effective recommendations to courts.

We do not expect social workers to be sitting through lengthy hearings of any description, unless there are exceptional reasons for so doing. We ask you to pay special attention to this point.

In public law cases, the child’s legal solicitor or barrister will still be able to attend every hearing, having taken instructions from the guardian who will remain accessible by phone to the solicitor or barrister in the usual way.

I'm not sure that this is supportive of guardians being present at all hearings in care cases, which in my view they should be - unless specifically excused. Although pa 6.5 PD16A requires :

The children's guardian or the solicitor appointed under section 41(3) of the 1989 Act or in accordance with paragraph 6.2(a) must attend all directions hearings unless the court directs otherwise.

it is usual for a guardian to specifically seek permission not to attend even if their solicitor is present. For good reason. It is already a known phenomenon for conscientious guardians to furtively suggest that the court might wish to order them to attend so that they may be present at a hearing or to hear the evidence of the parents where they consider it necessary - in order that they can do so without being reprimanded. This can only get worse.

In private law we are told of the invention of a new form of s7 lite. Although I think 7 Zero would have been a better rebrand, they've gone with the rather less obvious "Child Impact Analysis". This comes with its own template containing 5 generic headings and no reference to the welfare checklist. The irony of course is that if the analysis is not set out with reference to the law, a party is far more likely to require the officer to come to court to give evidence in order to explain their analysis. So possibly not such a genius way to free up the time of a CAFCASS Officer. Unless the success of this wheeze is predicated on the assumption a LiP won't know to ask for the officer to attend for cross examination.

The guidance says :

The work of Cafcass and Cafcass Cymru after the first hearing [in private law] will be streamlined and re-focussed, so this is the area of work we propose should be subject to most change.

Cafcass and Cafcass Cymru plan to deliver more defined interventions in cases going beyond the first hearing than the traditional section 7 report and they intend to pilot new child impact reports for 3-6 months in Essex, York and North Yorkshire and South West Wales.

The threshold for asking Cafcass/Cafcass Cymru to carry out work beyond the first hearing should be a concern about significant child impact, not the fact that the parental dispute is continuing in court.

Whether this means there will be any change outside of the pilot areas is anyone's guess. And quite what the last sentence actually MEANS is beyond me. What is a "significant child impact" and exactly which cases don't involve one?

There is talk of "brief interventions" and "brief child-focussed casework". I think this means CAFCASS will go back to doing some actual hands on social working - not a lot, but a little (as Paul Daniels would have said). The stuff that used to be done by the FSWs that were made redundant some years ago. The stuff that CAFCASS have been telling us isn't their job for some years now (oh no, we just write reports). I welcome this, if it means what I think it means (working with instead of reporting on families - facilitating reintroductions, life story etc).

There is also mention of "local arrangements" and "hotline arrangements" (which apparently exist in Wales) so that CAFCASS can "[act] in a social work advisor role to court, as the social work equivalent of legal advisors." Nope, me neither. Does this mean they'll rock up and make a recommendation on the hoof? By phone? With or without the parties present? With or without them being able to ask questions (on the hoof) (without a lawyer)? *twitch...twitch*

In public law we're likely it seems to get one rather than two analyses from a guardian. In truth this is beginning to be the norm anyway, but there is a significant benefit in many cases in an early analysis for which a position statement is just not a substitute. Such analyses can materially affect the whole direction of travel of a care case (including whether or not there is an interim removal). Coupled with the fact that a Guardian is now unlikely I think to even be at court at a CMH, this is worrying indeed. So much happens at those early hearings, so much information is elicited whilst at court - a Guardian should be AT court liaising with social workers and asking questions and rolling up their sleeves, not receiving the potted highlights from their solicitor some hours later.

Anyway, there you go. That's my initial impact analysis - there will be a significant impact, I just don't know quite what it will be. Things are changing. Or possibly just coming full circle.... *helpful face*

I sympathise with CAFCASS, like any other public service struggling to manage with inadequate funding but I do wish they'd drop the jargon and speak English.

Watch this space.

And send me explanations if it makes sense to you...

Oh and by the way, the General Election has messed up Family Court reform…

Have been meaning to write a short post observing that the Prison & Courts Bill, which contained draft proposals to deal with the vexed issue of direct cross examination of alleged victims of d.v. by their alleged perpetrators and enabling provisions to allow the online court reform programme to move forward, has been ditched in light of the election.

That is to say, it is no longer going to be considered in this Parliament, and we will have to wait and see whether the new Government (either a "stronger and stablerer" May Government or some other sort of Government) has the time or inclination to put this back on the table. Once can foresee that other priorities such as the "Great Repeal Bill" might take priority (much like disguised compliance which means the exact opposite of what it says, this would be a Bill that would repeal one thing and enact a million others into our law, but hey), but it's difficult to tell what sort of space in the timetable will be left for other ongoing work. Other factors which increase the uncertainty are the increasingly frequent news articles speculating that our Lord Chancellor Liz Truss, who is of course responsible for this legislation, is not going to last much longer in that post.

So we will have to wait and see. But at best this means some delay in getting these reforms through. At worst it means they disappear into the long grass of Brexit.

For those who enjoy an exercise in futility you can read what I said about the Prison & Courts Bill when it was still a thing here, and what David Burrows said about it in a guest post here.