By Linda Pressly
Reporter, Law in Action, BBC Radio 4
Guardians have yet to be appointed in more than 500 care cases
The interests of children in care proceedings are represented by professional guardians. But a shortage is causing lengthy delays and affecting decisions about some children's future.
Rebecca is an 18-year-old student who lives with her adoptive mother. She is chatty, self-assured, and looking forward to university.
Rebecca's birth mother struggled to look after her children as a result of alcoholism and drug use. So Rebecca and her brothers and sisters were put in care when she was 11.
When her case went to the family court, the children were represented by a solicitor. But it was the court-appointed guardian - a senior social worker - who had the job of assessing what was in the best interests of Rebecca and each of her siblings.
Rebecca says: "Helen talked to everyone involved in our case. I'm quite uneasy around people from social services, but she was really good, and reassured me she was there for me.
"I told her I wanted to carry on living with my foster mum, who's now my adoptive mum, and that I wanted to maintain contact with my brothers and sisters. She then wrote a report for the court."
The government agency Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service), is responsible for promoting the welfare of children involved in family court proceedings.
And it is Cafcass' job to supply children's guardians when required by the law or the courts.
But according to its own figures, there is a backlog of more than five hundred care cases in England where guardians have not been appointed.
Merseyside has been one of the areas where the number of unallocated cases has risen over the past ten months.
Malcolm Sharpe is a family law barrister at Atlantic Chambers in Liverpool with first-hand experience of delays in the system.
"I can certainly think of cases where I've represented the local authority where there has been no guardian for at least five or six weeks. As a consequence, decisions were taken concerning the child that had to be revisited once a guardian was appointed," he says.
"A shortage of guardians delays the outcome for a child and adds to the public cost."
He is acting in around fifteen cases a month, and estimates that in over the half of those no guardian has been appointed by the time of the first court hearing.
Guy Mitchell has been working as a guardian since 1984, most recently in Liverpool. He is horrified by the delays.
"For very young children, lengthy proceedings are a huge chunk of their lives. So if you start proceedings on a baby and then don't decide that baby's fate until a year or two years later, it's an eternity for a child of that age.
"You're trampling all over the special window in which it is possible for children to make secure attachments."
In the absence of a guardian, often the child's solicitor will take on some of their responsibilities in a case. Helen Broughton, a managing partner at Moorcrofts in Liverpool is unhappy about this.
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"As the child's solicitor, you have got to decide how far you go in taking on the welfare issues. And you worry you might miss something a social worker would pick up on.
"Solicitors are used to working in tandem with a guardian. You're now working alone and you're not trained for that."
And because of the shortage, those guardians who are in the system can find themselves overloaded.
Guy Mitchell can be working on up to twenty-three cases at any one time - nearly double what it should be. He is critical of the way Cafcass is managing experienced professionals like himself.
"All over the public sector we are moving into a highly dirigiste management culture, in which the workload of front line professionals is micro-managed with a box-ticking mentality. Cafcass is no exception to that".
Guy Mitchell has decided to leave Cafcass.
His concerns about the delays in appointing guardians are felt all the way up to the bench. Judge Sean Duncan has presided over family cases for two decades.
"Some of our guardians are absolutely brilliant. Some of their reports are really helpful and very useful for the court. I value them very much," he says.
"The local managers of Cafcass are well aware of the problem in getting guardians appointed quickly, but what worries me is who is bringing it home to the folk right at the top of the real need? And this is a vital need."
Anthony Douglas is Cafcass' chief executive. He acknowledges there are delays, but says the main factor responsible for the shortage of guardians is the rise in demand since the Baby P case.
"Liverpool is a local hotspot along with London and we are under great pressure. But in the last two or three months those difficulties have been intensified because of the dramatic rise in applications which directly followed the reviews local authorities did after the Baby P case.
"So it is a worrying situation, and we are having to react to it as best we can. You have to get in early and effectively in these cases."
Cafcass points out that guardians have been appointed in more than 10,570 care cases, and Mr Douglas denies the accusation that the organisation is overly bureaucratic.
"Any agency can try and cut its bureaucracy a bit, but I don't believe a responsible organisation dispenses with paperwork. Paperwork is about recording a case properly in an accountable way."
Whatever the criticisms of the way guardians are being managed, Rebecca remains convinced the guardian in her own case made an essential difference:
"Social services didn't want us as siblings to have contact with each other. But the guardian agreed with us that it was very important.
"Guardians have a lot of influence on the court process, so her view really helped us to swing the deal."
Law In Action is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 3 March at 1600 GMT. Listen via the BBC iPlayer, or download the free podcast.