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External court assessments costing councils

The increasing number of court orders demanding independent expert reports in family court proceedings is starting to take a financial toll on local authorities.

The increasing number of court orders demanding independent expert reports in family court proceedings is starting to take a financial toll on local authorities.

In East Sussex, judges’ demands for external parental assessments have contributed to a rise in legal costs for the children’s services department. For the 2009-10 financial year, the total legal budget for the department was £1.9m. In 2010-11, this increased to £2.2m.

Liz Rugg, the council’s assistant director of children’s services, said an external parental assessment cost the department an average of £7,500.

“The courts are very keen on assessments being an independent process,” she told Community Care. “Just the external assessment costs an average of £7,500, but there’s also the additional cost of the delay that process causes. Any child in a foster placement during the court proceedings has to stay there that much longer while we commission an independent assessor.”

Rugg said this delay not only added to cost, but could also negatively impact the child’s wellbeing.

The Family Justice Review, published earlier this month, attempted to address issues around court delay. Some said the review did not adequately address problems created by a lack of trust in council social workers by judges.

President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services Matt Dunkley said the roles of council social workers, court-appointed guardians and expert witnesses needed further clarification in the review to prevent duplicated assessments.

“We acknowledge that there is significant work to do to increase the judiciary’s trust in local authority social work and vice versa and are committed to working with leaders of the judiciary locally and nationally to find ways of increasing our mutual understanding and improved partnership working,” he said.

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