A record number of care applications was received by family court body Cafcass in December 2008, the month after the Baby P scandal broke.
Statistics published this week showed that Cafcass handled 693 requests for care cases in December – its highest number ever despite December typically being a quiet month for care cases. This marked a 66% increase on December 2007, when Cafcass received 417 applications.
Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said the rise could partly be explained as a reaction by councils to the Baby P case, following the conviction of his mother and two men for causing or allowing his death in November 2008.
But he added that child protection referrals to councils had also increased by 40% in some areas and another explanation may be greater compliance with the Public Law Outline case management system by councils who had struggled in the early months after its introduction.
Applications dropped by more than a quarter after the PLO’s introduction in April 2008, with 1,139 applications from April to June 2008, down from 1,568 over the same period in 2007.
Social workers and lawyers have said that the need for councils to prepare a pre-proceedings checklist – including a care plan – was delaying cases and in some cases encouraging councils to pursue alternatives to court action.
But Douglas said: “Local authorities, like all of us, have bureaucratic systems, which can be frustrating, but are not an over-riding disincentive. If a local authority has not prepared a case fully, it will be given more time to do so – no court wants to leave a child unprotected through a lack of paperwork, and often it is not possible to do everything beforehand for good reasons.”
The fall last year in the number of care applications was also attributed to the transfer of responsibility for funding proceedings from the courts to councils in May 2008, increasing fees for authorities from £150 to up to £4,825.
Research carried out by Community Care found that Sunderland Council spent £32,000 on care proceedings between March 2007 and April 2008, and £116,000 from May-December 2008. The equivalent rise for South Tyneside Council was from £18,477 to £89,337.
Four councils – Hillingdon, Leeds, Liverpool and Norfolk – unsuccessfully sought a judicial review of the decision last year. Though the government had transferred £40m from the courts budget to councils to fund the increase in fees, the authorities said this had not been distributed in line with demand.