Council leaders will meet with government officials next month about whether they have been adequately funded to cover a huge hike in fees for care proceedings.
From 1 May, council fees for care proceedings will rise from £150 to between £1,775 and £4,875, as part of government reforms sparked by the review in 2006 of English child care proceedings. The fees for councils are designed to reflect costs, which are currently borne by the courts. The government has transfered £40m from the courts service budget to councils for 2008-9.
Town hall leaders to meet officials
A Local Government Association spokesperson said: “We will be meeting with [officials] in the next couple of weeks so we can have a clear idea whether the total sum and distribution is fair. If councils are left out of pocket we will be lobbying for more money.”
The news follows widespread concerns from family law leaders over the fee hike. Alistair MacDonald, co-chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children, said “This ill-thought out reform will result in some cash-strapped councils being more reluctant to issue court proceedings to protect children. The [£40m] is neither adequate nor is it protected from being used for other purposes.”
Helen James, who took over as chair of guardians’ body Nagalro last month, agreed it could influence councils’ readiness to issue proceedings, adding: “I don’t think this will give social workers, who will be focused on the child, an incentive. It will certainly give budget managers an incentive.”
Government rejects criticisms
In a statement issued yesterday, justice minister Bridget Prentice said the £40m provided for councils was “likely to exceed” the fees they would have to pay as they assume the maximum fee is paid in each case.
She added: “We have responded in full to those responses [to the consultation] that objected to the proposals on the basis that it was not clear that authorities had been funded, or that they had been insufficiently funded, to pay these fees.”
She also said that the changes would not lead to councils failing to take out necessary care proceedings, breaching their statutory duty to protect children at risk of significant harm.
Bridget Prentice added: “In practice, most local authorities pay court fees from a legal department or similar central budget, rather than from a children’s services budget that is the responsibility of individual social workers making decisions on the ground.”
Ministry of Justice: care proceedings reforms