The withdrawal of legal aid funding for family residential assessments has left councils struggling to foot the bill and may deny some families the opportunity to stay together, professionals have warned.
Previously, councils shared up to 25% of the costs of residential assessments ordered by the courts to evaluate parenting ability in care proceedings with legal aid quango the Legal Services Commission. But legal aid funding was withdrawn in October last year after a review of state funding of public law cases.
Caroline Little, co-chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children, said she anticipated residential assessment centres would be “closing across the board” if no alternative funding for placements was identified.
Little cited a judgement in January where Middlesbrough Council was ordered to pay the full cost of a residential assessment. Justice Bodey, presiding, said the courts were now “unable to spread the financial load of necessary residential assessments, yet faced with local authorities which are already struggling to make ends meet.” Bodey said the council was aware of similar cases in the pipeline and urged “further consideration of the funding of residential assessments”.
Dr Barry Jones, a former specialist registrar in psychotherapy at the Cassel Hospital in Richmond, Surrey, warned many families could be denied the opportunity to stay together if they could not get a placement.
Jones said the Cassel was the only NHS resource where whole families could be treated “to secure a family life together” and claimed the centre was at risk.
A spokesperson for West London Mental Health NHS Trust said the trust “fully supported” the Cassel and there were no planned cuts in funding for 2008-9.
Ann Baxter at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said she did not support the view that children would be taken into care if councils could not pay. “Residential assessments are used very rarely. If ordered this will impact – but it won’t happen often,” she said.
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