Family court body Cafcass has noticed a “Baby P effect” in some areas with a rise in the number of applications for care proceedings made by councils.
Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said there had been “local bulges in applications in the last two weeks”, associated with the publicity surrounding the Baby P case.
“This may mean appropriate protection for some children, and excessively risk averse decisions for others,” Douglas said.
Care fee hike
The rises follow a fall in applications for care proceedings in England this year, prompting further claims that the hike in council fees for proceedings since May, from £150 to up to £4,825, is deterring authorities from taking out cases.
Between April and September, 2,568 applications were made, nearly 20% lower than the 3,199 in the same period in 2007, according to Cafcass.
However, Douglas rejected a causal link between the fall in the number of proceedings and the fee hike, which the government has funded through a non-ringfenced £40m transfer from the courts to council budgets.
Douglas said he expected the fall in care applications to “settle at only 10% within 18 months”, and that in some parts of the country applications were rising, while in London they were stable.
Shift towards non-legal protection
He said the underlying fall in applications reflected a shift towards children at risk being supported in other ways – through kinship care, voluntary care arrangements agreed with families, family support services and “properly resourced” child protection plans.
This is in line with the package of reforms introduced earlier this year alongside the rise in fees, including the public law outline (PLO) system for managing cases through the courts and new guidance for councils on care proceedings.
These were designed to ensure that councils exhausted other routes, including kinship care, before bringing proceedings and that authorities were adequately prepared for those cases they did take out by completing required assessments and paperwork.
Douglas said: “There is no evidence that the rise in court fees has had a negative impact on cases where children need protection. It is one of a number of reforms which are attempting to ensure only children most in need of care and protection enter the care system by a legal route.”
Letter to Straw and Balls
However, in a letter to children’s secretary Ed Balls and justice secretary Jack Straw, Nagalro, the professional association for family court practitioners, claimed the care proceedings reforms had put more children at risk.
Under the PLO, councils must complete a pre-court checklist, including initial and core assessments and a social work chronology. Nagalro’s chair, Ann Haigh, told Straw and Balls that the PLO had “greatly increased the burdens on local authorities and have decreased the protection to children”.
She said the increase in fees gave “entirely the wrong message to local authorities”. And, contrary to Douglas, she claimed that children placed in informal care arrangements with relatives or in voluntary care, under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, were at risk due to the lack of court oversight and other safeguards.
Haigh urged Straw and Balls to reverse the increase in court costs, “look again at the burdens” introduced by the PLO and issue guidance to the courts and councils that threshold criteria for care proceedings had not changed. She also called for a review of the number of and rate of increase in kinship placements and voluntary arrangements made under section 20.
Row follows judicial review
The row follows a judicial review, brought by Hillingdon, Leeds, Liverpool and Norfolk councils, against the fee hike. The councils claimed that the £40m increase in council funding was not distributed in line with need.
Supporting the case, the NSPCC warned that councils could be deterred from taking out proceedings to protect children on cost grounds. However, this argument was rejected by the High Court, which turned down the judicial review.
Expert guide to the Baby P case