New statutory measures to protect children from abuse and neglect could exacerbate the care crisis confronting the family justice system, the Law Society has warned.
Responding to the government’s Reporting and acting on child abuse and neglect consultation, Chancery Lane said a mandatory reporting duty could lead to unnecessary intrusion into family life.
The Society said: ‘It is highly likely that a perverse consequence of a mandatory reporting duty would be to increase the numbers of cases brought before the family courts. The family justice system, without a substantial increase in resources, would struggle to cope with any such increase.’
Last month the president of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, predicted that new care cases could soar to as many as 25,000 by 2020. This figure would be double that recorded in 2015/16.
In a foreword to the consultation document, which was published in July, Home Office minister Sarah Newton and education minister Edward Timpson said there had been too many cases over recent years highlighting serious failings to protect children.
‘These failings result from a variety of different factors, from not recognising abuse for what it is to incorrect assessments of risk and from failures to properly share information between agencies and deliberate cover-ups,’ they added.
High-profile cases had led to calls for specific reforms to the child protection system, particularly the introduction of a new mandatory reporting scheme, the MPs said.
Acknowledging the proposed benefits of a mandatory reporting duty, the Society noted that child protection officials already operate within a robust statutory framework.
It added that the law is clear that ‘intervention in family life is only warranted in those cases where children are suffering or likely to suffer significant harm. This threshold is set deliberately high to ensure resources are focused on children and young people most at risk’.
The mandatory duty would also lead to high volumes of unsubstantiated reports which fall far below the significant harm threshold, the Society argued. Investigating these reports would place a greater burden on already limited local authority resources.
Where professionals face strong, possibly criminal sanctions, there is a danger they would become preoccupied with the quality of their reporting, the Society warned.
‘This preoccupation to report, and subsequent requirement to investigate, would draw resources away from meaningful early support for those children and families who could be better helped outside of the care system and those most at risk of abuse and neglect. We are not convinced that this is a suitable solution for children.’
Chancery Lane suggests resources should be focused on tackling issues, rather than simply reporting them. It would support measures which encourage shared responsibility and accountability for practitioners working with vulnerable children.
However, it says the government’s proposed ‘duty to act’ needs further consideration over how it could be effectively drafted and implemented.
The proposed statutory measure would require certain practitioners or organisations to take appropriate action (which could include reporting) in relation to child abuse or neglect if they knew or had reasonable cause to suspect it was taking place.
The Society also suggests a separate consultation to explore the impact of a mandatory duty to report or to act might have on vulnerable adults.