Parliament will today play host to a high-level meeting on the impact of the Legal Services Commission's proposed cuts to family legal aid on vulnerable children.
Chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss and Baroness Walmsley, the meeting gathers together Parliamentarians, family barristers and children's charities, and will examine the way in which some of the most vulnerable children and families will be put at risk by the cuts to the legal aid budget for family cases, which are due to be implemented later this year.
The meeting is being held against a background of a sudden surge in applications by local authorities to take children into care in the wake of the Baby Peter case, with the result that the services of specialist family law advocates are in demand as never before.
Lucy Theis QC, the Chair of the Family Law Bar Association (FLBA) and Judith Timms OBE, former Chief Executive of the National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS), are among those presenting the views of the family Bar and the children's charity sector to a range of Parliamentarians attending the meeting.
The proposed cuts will, according to a report on the Family Bar published in March 2009 by the King's Institute for the Study of Public Policy (The Work of the Family Bar), drive away talented advocates from publicly-funded work. The exodus of specialist advocates will be significant among women and minority ethnic practitioners, who show a strong level of commitment to publicly-funded work. This, says the FLBA, will in turn have an adverse impact on the diversity of family practitioners in the future.
Today's meeting takes place shortly after the Government's response to the Laming Report, which highlighted the need for greater investment in children's care services. The Government last week pledged a boost of £58million for the recruitment and retention of social workers, through a transformation fund.
However, the FLBA remains concerned that increased front-line support for social work needs to be matched by continued specialist representation in the family courts for those vulnerable families and children affected by such cases.
Commenting on the eve of the Parliamentary meeting, Lucy Theis QC, the Chair of the FLBA, said: "As the recommendations and implications of the Laming Report and the Government response to it are absorbed, the close attention to children's services will result in a huge increase in child protection orders, as Local Authorities err on the side of caution to avoid another Baby P tragedy. In this environment, the expertise of the family Bar is vital.
"Experienced advocates who are committed to the interests of the families they represent are needed to ensure that the right balance is struck. The children involved in the family justice system must be represented by those with the experience and ability to present what are often complex arguments, set against a backdrop of what is often an extremely emotive issue."
She continued: "The LSC's proposed cuts will further drive away those currently at the Family Bar; and they will also discourage talented potential barristers from pursuing the family bar as a career option, simply because they cannot afford to practise in this area. This is contrary to the interests of the vulnerable families and children we represent, who deserve the best possible advocates presenting their case, at a time when decisions are being made which will often involve whether children are permanently separated from their birth family. Such a decision has rightly been described as one of the most draconian orders a court can make."