Children involved in family court cases are in danger of receiving an inadequate service as guardians and lawyers are hit with funding cuts and record care applications.
This was the warning from children’s guardians and lawyers who told Community Care that law firms are increasingly managing the rise in care applications – which last month reached an all-time high – by appointing junior staff to complex family court cases.
At the same time, cuts to legal aid are putting lawyers under “huge pressure” to do more work for less money – a move that is already driving experienced lawyers out of the profession, they warned.
Denise Lester, chair of the Law Society’s children committee, admitted she was “very worried” about the situation.
“The government seems set to drive firms out of business with its cuts. We’re fighting a battle where ministers are telling professionals to complete care cases in six months, at the same time that care applications are rising and experienced lawyers are leaving the profession.
“Everyone is under more pressure than ever, yet, of course, the only people who can cope with this pressure and still provide a good service to children are experienced, committed lawyers,” Lester said.
Alison Paddle, a children’s guardian and spokesperson for guardians body Nagalro, said: “Evidence from Nagalro members is that the pool of firms who will undertake family cases has shrunk. Firms are increasingly using inexperienced staff to undertake family work, especially the representation of parents, but sometimes also in representing children.”
Nagalro also accused family courts body Cafcass of “restricting guardians’ attendance at court and overloading them with work so they cannot spend the time with children that they should”.
Lester echoed the claims: “Very experienced guardians have told me they are under pressure to write shorter reports, visit children less and work more ‘proportionately’.”
The cumulative effect of these pressures could leave children at a serious disadvantage, according to Nagalro chair Ann Haigh.
“With a combination of an absent guardian and an inexperienced lawyer, children can receive a diminished service – one that does not adequately protect their interests or safeguard their welfare,” she said.
Cafcass chief Anthony Douglas said: “Our guardians work proportionately in every case we receive, seeing children two to three times on average. There is no ban on seeing children even though the time guardians have is constrained by caseload increases and pressures in many teams.”
Cafcass is also developing a ‘brief analytical report writing model’, he said. “I know [this] can make a contribution to reducing delays in care cases,’ he added.
Record child referrals push social workers to breaking point