Careers: Family court adviser

A rise in care applications has led to greater demand for family court advisers, finds Charlotte Goddard.

What does the role involve?

Family court advisers have a number of roles relating to safeguarding and promoting the welfare and best interests of children in public and private law cases in family courts. They can act as children's guardians during care applications or applications for supervision orders, or in adoption cases where there is no parental consent.

In adoption cases where there is parental consent they can act as reporting officers, making sure that parents fully agree to the adoption.

They can also advise on the needs of children who have been separated from their families, while helping parents to resolve disputes about living arrangements for their children following separation and divorce.

How many people work in this area?

Cafcass (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) employs around 1,050 advisers directly and commissions more than 300 self-employed contractors. In 2007/08, 64 per cent of the family court adviser workforce was aged over 50, according to the Children's Workforce Development Council.

What qualifications and skills do you need for the role?

Family court advisers are required to be qualified, registered social workers with at least three years' relevant post-qualification experience, though most are much more experienced than this, according to Cafcass.

The service also "grows" its own advisers by employing newly graduated social workers on a specially-designed three-year pathway, although it is not currently recruiting for this programme.

Alison Paddle, spokeswoman for Nagalro, the professional association for family court advisers, says: "It is a highly professional role dealing with the most complex situations, and needs to be undertaken by really skilled professionals."

What are the benefits of the job?

The salary for advisers is £36,154 to £40,314 a year plus a London weighting of £4,250. In the capital, family court advisers have key worker status, meaning they can access help and financial support with housing. Annual leave is 25 days rising to 30 days after five years of service, plus three days at Christmas.

What training is provided?

Cafcass provides training for staff including the opportunity to attend relevant further and higher education courses and fully funds family court advisers on courses within the post-qualifying framework.

What is the current policy context?

The Family Justice Review's final report was published in November last year. The review recommends that a new Family Justice Service is established to lead and co-ordinate the whole family justice system, which would incorporate Cafcass.

The government is currently considering the recommendations from the review. But Paddle says: "The role of the family court adviser shouldn't change, just the organisation that delivers the service."

What are the challenges of the job?

Following the Baby Peter scandal in 2008, care applications rose dramatically, creating higher caseloads for family court advisers. March 2011 saw the highest figure ever recorded for a single month with 887 applications. "Anyone thinking about going into the role should be aware that they are going into an organisation where there is a great deal of unhappiness and very high levels of stress because of high workloads," warns Paddle.

But Anthony Douglas, chief executive of Cafcass, says it is "an over-generalisation" to talk about very high stress levels across the organisation. He says that while caseloads across children's social care have increased in recent years it is still a good environment to work in.

"We are a mainstream frontline organisation with the same pressures as all similar services but staff love their work and are totally committed to the children we work with - and that's a good professional environment to come into," Douglas says.

"Nonetheless, we are concerned about the impact these rises have on the wellbeing of our staff and are working with them to make sure workloads are manageable and they are well-supported."

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