Care proceedings in London have almost halved since reforms to the system last year, MPs have been told.
Children’s lawyer Caroline Little said there had been a 40% drop in the number of cases in the capital following the introduction of the public law outline (PLO) last September.
London was one of 11 areas to trial the PLO before its introduction across England and Wales in April, as part of reforms to ensure councils only take out proceedings where necessary and prepare better for any proceedings they pursue.
Speaking to the Commons children, schools and families select committee inquiry into looked-after children, Little said the causes of the reduction were not clear.
Public law outline
Under the PLO, councils must compile a “pre-proceedings” checklist before applying for a care or supervision order, including completing the core assessment, care plan and a social work chronology.
This has led to concerns that proceedings will be delayed due to the level of preparation required of councils, putting children who require help in an emergency at risk.
The PLO is complemented by new statutory guidance for councils on care proceedings, which also came into force in April. This requires councils to consider kinship care as an alternative to a care order and improve communications with families, in part to avoid proceedings where possible.
The third plank of the reforms, introduced in May this year, is a shift in responsibility for funding proceedings from the courts to councils, under which fees for authorities have risen for £150 to between £1,775 and £4,875 per case.
Little told MPs there was no evidence to suggest that greater involvement of parents and the family in the earlier stages of cases had led to a fall in care proceedings.
But though councils have received £40m a year to fund the rise in fee rates, she suggested the increase could potentially deter them from bringing proceedings.
Little, who is co-chair of the Association of Lawyers for children, said children could lack protection in “very serious cases” such as where they had broken bones because care proceedings were not being issued.
“Good quality child care practitioners are challenging local authorities to issue proceedings, instead of leaving children accommodated when they should not be…the reduction of care proceedings, if ongoing, will lead to fears that children are remaining unprotected”, she said.
David Holmes, chief executive of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, supported Little’s evidence, saying he was aware of concerns about the decline in child care proceedings and increased court fees.
But he agreed that the reasons for the reduction in cases was not yet known. “That is why it is so important to make sure that numbers of proceedings are scrutinised carefully…but it is very early days,” he said.
In response, Kim Bromley-Derry, children’s director at Newham Council in east London, said that in his authority the reforms had led to a backlog in cases entering the court system.
But he predicted there would be a “significant increase” in care proceedings over the next few months in London as work was completed. He also claimed there was no evidence of costs deterring authorities.
Bromley-Derry, vice-president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, told MPs: “I think that it is too early to say exactly what the dynamic is. It may be delay and lag in the system, which is certainly true of some places. It could be the additional cost. At the moment, I do not think that there is any evidence to say either way.”
Bromley-Derry said that he encouraged staff to audit cases of children that had not been taken through the courts on a regular basis. He added: “There is an inherent risk in changing from one system to another, but we have no evidence on any decisions that would have been made in emergencies but were not, which is encouraging.”