Solicitors have warned that local authorities may be deterred from placing vulnerable children into care, following the government’s decision not to scrap the controversial court fees paid by local authorities in care and supervision cases.
In a written ministerial statement yesterday, justice minister Jonathan Djanogly (pictured) said the fees of up to almost £5,000, which were due to be abolished from April 2011, would now be retained pending a further review once the family justice review panel has reported next autumn.
In May 2008, the court fees paid by local authorities for care and supervision proceedings rose from £150 to up to £4,825, to more accurately reflect the true cost to the court. The move prompted an outcry from family solicitors.
In March 2010, then justice secretary Jack Straw agreed that the fees would be abolished from April 2011, following an independent review of their impact by Francis Plowden.
Plowden’s review, which was undertaken in response to a recommendation in Lord Laming’s review of child protection after the death of Baby P, found that the introduction of the fees could influence whether local authorities initiated proceedings.
Djanogly said: ‘I have carefully considered the decision of the former secretary of state, and believe that there is no justification that these fees should be abolished and as such they will remain.’
He said: ‘Protecting vulnerable children is paramount, and I do not believe that continuing to charge these court fees will place vulnerable children at risk.’
Djanogly said that local authorities have a statutory duty to investigate instances when they suspect a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, and it would be unlawful for them to take financial considerations into account when making such decisions.
He said there was little, if any, empirical evidence to suggest that the fees deterred local authorities from commencing proceedings, noting that the number of applications had risen since 2008.
‘Francis Plowden’s review found that resource issues could play a part in determining whether proceedings were initiated, however, he only believed this occurred "at the margins". He confirmed that this conclusion was based on anecdotal evidence alone and also stated that it was unlikely that children have been knowingly left at unavoidable risk by local authorities,’ said Djanogly.
Law Society chief executive Des Hudson said: ‘No one wants to see another Baby Peter tragedy, but by maintaining these high fees, neglected and at risk children could be denied the protection of the courts because local authorities cannot afford it. The government must not allow its eagerness to cut the budget to put children in danger. The Society will do all it can to encourage the government not to maintain these fees at their current levels.’
He added: ‘This move goes against the government’s promises not to extend their austerity measures to society’s most vulnerable… This is even more serious now than when it was first introduced in 2008. It is local authorities who have to pick up the bill in these cases and they, like so many public sector bodies, are being squeezed by the chancellor.’
Alan Bean, co-chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children, said: ‘This is yet another example of government moving in the direction of trusting hard-pressed social services to do the right thing.’
‘Manifestly, it will result in Section 20 accommodation orders being allowed to carry on for months, and detriment being suffered to children drifting, when care proceedings ought to be issued or children returned to their families,’ said Bean.
Denise Lester, a partner at London firm Moss Beachley Mullem & Coleman, said she was concerned that the retention of the court fees would have an impact on the decisions made by local authorities to issue proceedings.
She said: ‘Safety, welfare and the protection of children is, and must remain, paramount above cost considerations.’