Cost of child protection case fees risks lives, say lawyers
Members of the judiciary and family lawyers have warned that a government-imposed hike in the cost of taking children into care could increase the numbers in danger of suffering domestic abuse
In May, the Ministry of Justice increased the legal fees that local authorities have to pay to bring court proceedings associated with the procedure. The cost rose dramatically from around £100 to £2,225.
The move has raised fears that councils will be dissuaded from taking into care children such as Baby P, the 17-month-old boy who died following serious abuse in the London borough of Haringey. Earlier this month, Leeds, Liverpool, Hillingdon and Norfolk councils sought a judicial review of the increase at the high court on the grounds that it could jeopardise other children’s services. They lost the case.
Tony Broadley, of the Manchester law firm, Rowlands, said the massive rise had created serious potential dangers. He said: “The government imposed a 2,500 per cent rise in the fees that local authorities have to pay to bring a case to court, on the basis that the courts were under-funded, and that care cases were causing the judicial system to run at a massive loss.
“The fee rise was introduced at the same time as a range of measures attempting to address child protection issues before the need for court proceedings arose, thereby relieving pressure on the courts and social services, saving money, and keeping children within their families, which, as demonstrated by this tragic case [Baby P], is not always the best solution. If ... a child’s safety comes down to resources, it requires us to ask what needs to be done to safeguard our children, and how much the government will pay for it.”
Magistrates also told the Guardian that they fear the move could limit applications to bring children into care from hard-up councils. The justice ministry said any such claims were “completely unfounded”. It said local councils were this year given £40m to cover the fees.
Yesterday, amid continuing public anger at the conduct of Haringey council in the case, members of the borough’s Labour party held an emergency meeting. Baby P was seen 60 times by social workers, health visitors, doctors and police.
Sharon Shoesmith, the director of children’s services, remained under pressure. Stuck to the window of the Hornsey and Wood Green Labour party head offices was a poster that stated: “Sharon Shoesmith, you have blood on your hands. Council taxpayers of Haringey refuse to pay council tax until Sharon Shoesmith is sacked.”
The poster was the work of Stephanie Biber, a local resident who said: “Sharon Shoesmith should resign, this is the final straw and I’m just so angry about it all.” More than 60 headteachers in the borough publicly backed Shoesmith at the weekend for “working relentlessly” to ensure the best services for all young people.
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