UPDATE 25.11.23: We have now received replies to our follow-up questions and will publish these, and our views on them, next week.
In April we wrote a blog post: The ‘Psychology Service’ for family court cases that nobody seems to know about:
In it we set out the information we had been able to find about the Cafcass National Psychology Service and the response to our Freedom of Information Act request to Cafcass. We did not think Cafcass had answered all our queries fully, so we sought an internal review. We promised to provide an update when Cafcass had responded to our further queries. This is that update.
The delay is partly due to Cafcass (their response did not come in until 31 July, after some chasing), but the delay since that time is on us.
What did we think was missing from the answers?
There were four areas:
- We had asked for the minimum qualification / experience that psychologists are expected to hold before working for Cafcass through the service. We didn’t think that the answer was clear so we sought clarification.
- We had asked for the relevant policy dealing with conflict of interest. Cafcass sidestepped this and told us simply that there was no conflict. We asked again for the policy.
- We asked for the relevant policy dealing with data collection and sharing that applied to the contract, and any policy relating to impact. We didn’t get an answer about data collection and sharing, and we couldn’t decipher the acronyms used in the response about impact.
- We asked who the contract had been awarded to (assuming that the tender process would have completed by the time we got a response).
What more did Cafcass tell us?
We’ll deal with the responses under the four topics above.
Minimum qualifications and experience
‘[the] question was about psychologists. ‘Child Psychologist’ is not a protected title, is not subject to statutory regulation, and undergraduate degrees are typically in psychology rather than child psychology, so I am unclear what your answer means. In addition, your answer does not specify the nature of the experience required.
- Could you please clarify whether the wording of your answer is taken directly from a tender specification or contract.’
The response was simply that ‘Cafcass can advise the wording was not taken directly from any document.’
Which rather sounds like they just pulled it out of the air in response to our FOI request.
We had also tried to drill down on qualifications, asking
Could you please clarify whether you require any post-graduate qualification (and if so what), and whether there is any stipulation as to the experience required. For example should it be clinical experience, and should it be 5 years relating to children or in general psychology?
‘Cafcass did not require a specific post-graduate qualification. We sought appropriately qualified psychologist(s) who had experience in delivering case consultations and in providing learning and development to social work professionals in child and family social work. We looked for a professional qualification in Psychology; however, the precise qualification was not stipulated.’
We think ‘appropriately qualified’ is a bit Humpty Dumpty: It can mean whatever one wants it to mean. Here it apparently means an undefined professional qualification in psychology which isn’t a post-graduate qualification. We aren’t sure what that would look like. Does it just mean a Bachelors degree in psychology?
We asked if the psychologists are required to be registered with the HCPC (Health Care and Professions Council). The answer we received was that ‘they are’. Whilst this is helpful in that it gives us some indication of the likely base level qualifications those carrying out the work must have, we still don’t know if the tender or contract stipulated them to be so registered, or if this is just a happy coincidence that Cafcass have checked with the psychologists after our response came in.
We had also noted that the tender documents specified that:
‘The aim of the service is to support practitioners in identifying and assessing risk associated with psychological processes within and between individuals which may be impacting adversely on children, including: attachment patterns, trauma, mental health, harmful conflict/parental alienation, Child Sexual Exploitation and radicalisation.’
We therefore asked for a copy of the policy that explains the selection of these factors (attachment patterns etc.), and any documentation explaining how the provider’s expertise in these areas is evidenced.
Cafcass said that,
‘[we] can advise that the factors listed are not intended to be an exhaustive or definitive list of the points of discussion that may be explored within the discussion. These are risks that are often seen within family court proceedings, however practitioners may engage in the appointment with the psychology service to discuss a complex issue not listed within the tender document examples. CVs are viewed and discussed within the evaluation process.’
We think this is rather missing the point of the question – which was aimed at how these have become the priority list that defines the shape of the tender and the expertise that is being sought on review of the CVs at the point of appointment.
Conflicts of interest
We asked for a direct answer to our question about policy dealing with conflict of interest. Given the fact that the previous answer indicated Cafcass had gone to the provider to check on conflict in order to prepare their response, we said ‘I infer from the fact that it seems Cafcass approached the provider to answer this question that there is no such policy or procedure, but would be grateful for confirmation of the same.’
This time around we were given a copy of a policy, and told it applies to internal and external stakeholders. Apart from (maybe) a line noting that conflicts of interest may arise where someone ‘Fail[s] to declare any interest or relationship in the award of contracts for goods or services’ and a reference to ‘commercial interests’ there is nothing in this document that remotely applies to the question of conflict of interest in this context of the sort we were asking about. We had identified in our original question the possibility of a psychologist from the service also being a part 25 expert.
Contrary to the assertion in the response from Cafcass that this policy applies to all ‘stakeholders’, it very clearly only applies to Cafcass employees / staff. It doesn’t say it covers independent providers and much of it explicitly relates to staff and makes no sense if one tries to read it as if it applies to others.
Conclusion: We asked a very direct question and got fobbed off with an irrelevant document. We think our original inference that there is no policy was probably justified.
Data and impact
We repeated our request for a copy of Cafcass policy on data collection and sharing that applies to this contract, pointing out it had been ignored in the first responses.
Surprising then to receive this response:
‘Cafcass can advise that the consultation with the psychology service is not an expert assessment and cannot be cited within any report to court. The outcome of the consultation is recorded within the child’s record, within our internal recording system ChildFirst, by the practitioner.’
Again, this seems to be an answer describing practice and procedure. But it isn’t a policy. So they still haven’t answered the question. The answer should have been either ‘here is the policy’ or ‘there is no written policy, but this is what we do’.
More to the point, we think this spectacularly misses the point of the question again – it doesn’t address the approach of Cafcass to sharing the information of families with an outside provider. In our original post we queried how this was permissible under the Family Procedure Rules or in terms of data protection law. We are still left with no answer to that important question. If the judge and families don’t know the data is being shared and haven’t given permission or consent – is it actually lawful?
We did get an answer to one mystery acronym – OMT stands for Operational Management Team, which is:
‘a monthly meeting for all Assistant Directors and Heads of Practice plus other senior leads. It is chaired by the National Director of Operations. The quarterly report provided to this meeting provides a summary overview of the number of consultations that have been provided by the service, broken down into region, and feedback from practitioners and the provider on the effectiveness of the service.’
So, we now know at least that there are quarterly reports with statistics showing how many consultations have been carried out by region and feedback from Cafcass officers on effectiveness of the service. We’ll be asking about that.
It goes without saying there won’t be any feedback from judges or families because they won’t know they’ve even been discussed. Not telling the court or the parties about the scheme is one thing that Cafcass DO have a written and explicit policy on (see our first post).
Who got the contract?
Cafcass told us nobody had been awarded the contract at the date of their response.
However, we note that on 1 June 2023 the contract was in fact awarded to Kingsham Consultancy Ltd again.
So this answer was just plain wrong. It’s possible that there is some technical reason why they couldn’t give us a straight answer before the date the award was published on 9 August but it would have been more straightforward to tell us that the contract had been awarded and would be published shortly, rather than giving an inaccurate answer.
Overall, this has been rather like pulling teeth, and we are left still very much in the dark about this service. During our enquiries, it was difficult to find any professionals outside Cafcass who knew this service existed. We don’t think its satisfactory that there is no clarity around the required qualifications and expertise, around conflict of interest or around data sharing and privacy rules. We are worried about unresolved legal issues around the sharing of information. Regrettably, it looks rather like none of these issues have really been considered and worked through and Cafcass just don’t have answers.
There is a distinct lack of transparency, which has implications for trust between families and Cafcass, and potential for corruption of the forensic process if unidentified individuals are influencing the process in a way which is entirely occult to the judge, the parties and the lawyers. This is particularly notable given the current emphasis on the importance of rigour when dealing with psychological expertise, as described in Re C and the revised BPS and FJC Joint Guidance – none of the safeguards offered by Part 25 are available to families under this service and the psychologist owes no duty to the court even though their input is clearly intended to influence recommendations and outcome (otherwise what is the point of it?), and there is an absence of informed (or any) consent as would usually be expected of a psychologist.
Whilst the individuals who are offering this service may well be extremely well qualified and experienced, and may be providing a skilled and helpful service, we are not clear that Cafcass policies or contract requirements have been robust enough to ensure that is the case and, because the contract is with a small company, we don’t actually know which psychologists are delivering the service – it might be the psychologist listed as a director alone or in combination with others, or it might not. We don’t even know if Cafcass knows or controls which psychologist is providing the service or if the contract permits the Kingsham to deliver the service through psychologists of its own choosing.
This is all a great shame, because a service like this has potential to benefit families and help the courts. But the way in which it is done really does matter. We do not think this lack of transparency does any of the organisations involved any credit.