The Ministry of Justice has reversed Labour’s promise to abolish court fees charged to councils for children’s care and supervision proceedings, it was announced today.
In the wake of the cuts to council funding announced in the Spending Review yesterday, justice minister Jonathan Djanogly made a written ministerial announcement claiming he saw no reason to abolish the fees, of up to £4,825, as promised by the Labour government’s justice secretary Jack Straw.
The news is likely to infuriate councils who had expected to be able to stop paying the fees next April following a recommendation from Francis Plowden who investigated whether the fees were deterring councils from initiating care proceedings for vulnerable children.
Djanogly said: “I have carefully considered the decision of the former secretary of state and believe that there is no justification that these fees should be abolished and as such they will remain.
“Francis Plowden’s review found that resource issues could play a part in determining whether proceedings were initiated. However, he only believed this occurred ‘at the margins’. He confirmed that this conclusion was based on anecdotal evidence alone and also stated that it was unlikely that children have been knowingly left at unavoidable risk by local authorities.
“The fundamental principles in setting court fees at levels that reflect the cost of the service being provided are now more important than ever in the drive to ensure all departments are transparent and accountable for the money spent on public services.”
Djanogly said fee charging improves decision-making and accountability and promotes the efficient allocation of resources enabling authorities to identify particular pressures. He said the cost of keeping the fees had been considered and “built in as appropriate to the Spending Review settlements 2010 for those departments affected”.
He also said it would be “premature” to remove the fees before the Family Justice Review reports in Autumn 2011, but confirmed he will review them, “following these findings and any proposals that seek to change the way in which these cases are dealt with by the courts”.
In March, directors of children’s services criticised ministers for delaying the abolition of the court fees. Former president of the Association for Directors of Children’s Services Kim Bromley-Derry said he was “disappointed” that Straw delayed Plowden’s recommendation to abolish the fees in April 2010, “given the current cost pressures on local authorities”.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Protecting vulnerable children is paramount. Where children might be at risk from harm, councils are legally bound to investigate and put any cases before the courts as swiftly as possible.
“Each year the government provides funding to cover councils’ costs in child protection cases, with councils given the flexibility to allocate this according to local needs. This provides greater transparency of the true cost of the services they provide and enables them to better identify where pressures may lie, which can help improve services in the long term.”
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