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District Judge Nicholas Crichton, the presiding judge at Wells Street family proceedings court in central London, has spoken to Newswatch about his outrage over new fees for child care orders.
Despite widespread criticism from senior judges and the Association of Lawyers for Children, the Government proceeded with the controversial Family Proceedings Fees Order which came into force on 1 May 2008. It increases court fees in public law family proceedings, meaning local authorities' fees for care orders will increase from £150 to £5,225 for a fully contested court case.
Speaking to Newswatch, Nicholas Crichton commented: "Where the courts are concerned, Government has two very important responsibilities - to protect the public from criminal behaviour and to protect the most vulnerable children in our society. If any one were to suggest that the prosecuting authorities should have to pay a fee to gain access to the criminal courts people would rightly be outraged. Why then should local authorities be expected to pay a fee to bring proceedings to protect a child? It is shameful and absurd."
The judge explained that he is not against the idea of charging fees for other civil proceedings, for example to file a divorce petition, or for two companies to have a dispute resolved by a judge - but not to protect children. Along with many other lawyers, he believes that the criminal courts and the family courts dealing with public law should be provided free at the expense of the taxpayer.
In April the Justice Minister, Bridget Prentice presented Parliament with a written ministerial statement on the outcome of a consultation on Public Law Family Fees which closed at the end of March. In the statement the Minister said that the Government had addressed the issue that the money allocated to Local Authorities to pay for the proceedings was not protected from being used for other purposes nor was it adequate.
However Nicholas Crichton says that he has anecdotally heard some Local Authorities cannot trace the money, while others say that they have received the extra funding but that it does not match the number of applications they made last year or are likely to make this year.
As for the money being used for other purposes, he says: "the money, where it has been received is not ring-fenced, so a chief executive could use it to install 1000 parking meters if he so wished; nor is there any projection suggesting that funds will be provided in future years.
"In any event, even if local authorities were to receive a realistic sum every year, why set up a system where local authorities are given money only for a system to be set up to claw it back? What sort of nonsense is that?"
Last month the Ministry of Justice published its official response to the Public Law Family Fees consultation. Although the Government accepted that the majority of respondents disapproved of the proposals, it concluded that respondents' concerns were 'misplaced'.
Nicholas Crichton believes that the consultation was a charade: "I do not think that anyone believes that there was true consultation about the enhanced fees. The consultation paper referred to a probable start date on 1 April, which got deferred by one month no doubt as a response to the outcry; and they announced that the funds had already been transferred to local authorities. This was not a genuine consultation, which probably explains why many did not bother to respond."
There is discontent amongst the judiciary about how the family justice system is run. In April, Mr Justice Coleridge urged policy makers to "stop chipping away at the family justice system and trying to have it on the cheap", something Nicholas Crichton says he is in agreement with. Sir Mark Potter has widely voiced his concerns over the fees for care orders and last month Justice Ryder commented in a speech made at a Butterworths' event that family courts lacked capacity to "deal with an ever-increasing volume of the most serious and complex cases in a timely fashion".
Nicholas Crichton does not hesitate to add his own firm criticism: "This is a Government which talks 'big' about the importance of protecting children from abuse and neglect, but which does not deliver. They are driven solely by financial imperatives. No one would suggest that financial considerations are not important, but in the field of child protection the Government's present initiative is nothing short of a scandal. What sort of message do the enhanced fees send out about the importance of child protection in our society?"