By Rachel Rothwell
A massive hike in court fees for local authorities will lead to 'more child deaths', a leading family law solicitor starkly warned this week.
Lawyers accused the government of ignoring their concerns about its decision to introduce a staggering 3,000% increase in the cost to local authorities of issuing court proceedings to place a child in care.
The fee for issuing proceedings will rise from £150 to up to £5,225 on 1 May. While the government says local authorities have already been given the funding to pay for the increases, solicitors warned that because this budget has not been ringfenced, authorities may be deterred from making applications, with potentially tragic consequences.
Courts across the country are already seeing a significant drop in the number of proceedings issued to place children into care, the Gazette has learned.
Proceedings issued in the Inner London Family Proceedings Court - which deals with more care applications than any other court - fell by 37% in the first three months of 2008 compared to the same period last year.
Audrey Damazon, justices clerk at the court, said: 'If fewer children are coming to court, hopefully this is because local authorities are doing their job properly in terms of assessments. But we are concerned about families where neglect has been going on for a long time.'
Christina Blacklaws, former chairwoman of the Law Society's Family Law Committee, said: 'This is a disaster in every shape and form. I cannot stress enough how concerned everybody is. We will have more child deaths because of this. I do not say that lightly... We are just going to have to wait for the next tragedy.'
Local authorities will be charged £2,225 on submitting an application to take a child into care, while pre-hearing reviews will cost £700 and final hearings £1,900. Association of Lawyers for Children co-chairman Alistair MacDonald pointed out that the total cost could be up to £5,225 for a fully contested court case, meaning 'vulnerable children will be at even greater risk of harm.'
Law Society President Andrew Holroyd said it was disappointing the government had not listened to concerns.
An HM Courts Service spokesman said children would be protected by local authorities' statutory duty to issue proceedings, adding that cases that were handled more efficiently would attract lower fees.
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