I’ll be doing a more detailed analysis of the Government’s decision, when responding to the Family Justice Review, to not adopt the recommendation to abolish Court fees for care proceedings, which went up from £175 per case to around £5000 (if the case goes to final hearing, it is cheaper if it is resolved at Issue Resolution Hearing), but in very broad terms :-
The consultation about the change to fees was rolled out on a Government website on New Year’s Eve (I like to think Local Government lawyers are hard-working and don’t keep the hours that the general public might stereotypically associate with public sector workers, rightly or wrongly, but even we have better things to do on New Year’s Eve)
The consulation proceeded on the premise that the principle that the full costs of care proceedings to the Court service should be met by Local Authorities. And basically gave a range of choices about whether they wanted to be punched in the stomach, kidneys or face while they were being mugged. There was plenty of talk about how the fee increase wasn’t intended to be a lever to drive down the number of care applications within that consultation. Most LA lawyers who responded to the consultation made exactly the point that there was a risk of it being used that way. The consultation disregarded this.
The numbers of care proceedings issued dropped like a stone (there was the additional complication of the PLO, which got rid of delay in care proceedings (ha!) by front-loading them so that all the delay happened before the case got to Court, so I couldn’t claim that they were responsible for the entireity of the plummet)
Then Baby P came along, the numbers spiked up and have kept doing so, and the Government invited Lord Laming to report, saying that they would accept all his recommendations. He reported, saying that he feared that if even one application that should have been made to Court had not been because of the fees, then they should be scrapped and recommended that a report look into that.
The Plowden review reported and recommended the abolition of Court fees. The Government didn’t respond to that. In fact, it took a Parliamentary question to get from them that they intended to kick it into the long grass and leave it for whoever won the (at the time imminent) election to resolve.
The new Government kicked it into the long grass, and waited for the Family Justice Review. The interim FJR recommended the abolition of court fees. The full report came, and recommended the total abolition of Court fees in care proceedings. The Government accepted most of the other recommendations (wavering about presumptions of shared parenting) and rejected the abolition of Court fees in care proceedings.
To me, this is a batsman at the crease who is clean bowled, and says he wasn’t ready, then is LBW next ball, and says the sun was in his eyes, and then finally is caught and just stands at the crease, refusing to walk and says “Come on, next ball – I’ve got a good feeling about this innings”
Why does it matter? Well, it has a huge financial impact on Local Authorities – it would be fair to say that most of them don’t get anywhere close to breaking even from the money Central Government gave for this purpose, and pay out far, far more. But more importantly, it has an impact on parents.
When I started out, I used to issue care proceedings on parents who were in danger of losing their children if they didn’t turn things around – we applied for Supervision Orders and Interim Supervision Orders. And in many cases, being in Court, and having representation, and hearing from a Guardian and a Judge who would explain to the parents that they could be helped to avoid an awful calamity did the trick. LA’s don’t apply for many Supervision Orders now – despite the spike in the numbers of proceedings, most of the time, LA’s go to Court when they perceive they are at the end of the road with the parents (sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong, but the mindset is that we are in Court to say ‘we can’t manage this at home any more’). The application form for Care proceedings has a section on it (before the page where the form asks you the gender of the mother…) where you indicate whether you seek an Interim Care Order or an Interim Supervision Order. If I had any confidence that HMCS kept stats, that would be a fine Freedom of Information question – the proportion of cases where an LA issues seeking an Interim Supervision Order (reflecting that it isn’t the end of the road, but a significant junction where a parent can choose a better course)
And the other huge impact that the Government hasn’t thought about, is that if you keep the Court fees as they are, and implement the hard six month cap; you exclude Local Authorities reaching a conclusion in cases where there’s general progress, but a wobble (a parent is abstinent for five months, but has a lapse just before the final hearing for example) to say “Let’s give this a try with a Supervision Order – we can always bring it back to Court” if giving that benefit of the doubt is going to cost £5000 to get it wrong. Much easier to do it under a Care Order. Which is fine if the lapse was just a lapse, and no more, but what happens when it is a relapse instead, and rather than having to bring it back to Court and prove it, the Care Order (which remember will come with a much looser care plan than at present) just kicks into force and the child is removed without a hearing?
I rather suspect we might be seeing an increase in the number of Care Orders made at final hearings, as an accidental consequence of a flawed system.