Despite widespread criticism from senior Judges and the Association of Lawyers for Children (ALC), Justice Minister Bridget Prentice announced that the Government is to proceed with the proposed increase in court fees in public law family proceedings.
The announcement came yesterday in a written ministerial statement on the outcome of a consultation on Public Law Family Fees. The Statutory Instruments were laid before Parliament on 9 April 2008.
The consultation was published on 19 December 2007 and closed on 11 March 2008. In all 111 responses were received from local authorities, law professionals, the judiciary and other stakeholder bodies.
According to the ALC, from 1 May, the fee paid by a local authority to go to court to protect a child at risk from abuse will rise from £150 to £5,225 for a fully contested court case. Local authorities can make some savings if they can persuade parents to agree to the Authority's plans at an early stage of the case but even then the fee will be £2,225.
In the ministerial statement, Bridget Prentice said that the Government had addressed the issue that the money allocated to Local Authorities to pay the proceedings was not protected from being used for other purposes nor was it adequate. Bridget Prentice said: "the total of £40 million [allocated to the Local Authorities] is likely to exceed the total fees payable because it assumes that the maximum fee is paid in each case. In reality, some cases following the new Public Law Outline procedure will be resolved at earlier stages and pay a lower fee."
However, Alistair MacDonald, Co-Chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children said: "The Government claim that these reforms will make care proceedings pay for themselves but the money given to local authorities to pay the fees has been taken from the courts' budget. The idea of taking money from one budget and placing it in a second budget so that it can be paid back into the first budget is ludicrous."
Yesterday, Newswatch reported that Judges had also been critical of the new fees and that they would create a risk that local authorities would be more reluctant to issue court proceedings to protect children. On behalf of the Family Sub-Committee of the Council of Circuit Judges, the President of the Family Division, Sir Mark Potter, said: "The pressure created by social workers' heavy caseloads cause proceedings to be neglected. When budgetary considerations are added, there is unacceptable pressure to bring as few cases as possible. This is to be deplored and is dangerous to children."
Responding to this charge, Bridget Prentice said: "Local authorities are under a statutory duty to protect children at risk of significant harm. Both the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Children's Services, in their responses to the consultation, confirmed that local authorities are not influenced by cost considerations in their approach to initiating proceedings or in their decisions about appropriate pre-proceedings work. The practical effect of the statutory duty in this instance is to require authorities to ensure that adequate budgetary provision is made to pay the necessary court fees, and to ensure that individual decisions are not affected by budgetary considerations."
The Ministry of Justice said it will publish the response to the consultation paper in full within the next two months.