Blow for councils as family court fees abolition is delayed

Councils are “disappointed” that family court fees will not be scrapped until 2011, despite an independent report recommending abolition next month.

The review was carried out by Francis Plowden – after recommendations by Lord Laming – to determine whether fees of up to £4,825 were deterring councils from starting care proceedings for vulnerable children.

Pledging to abolish the fees by 2011, justice secretary Jack Straw told parliament that, although the review had concluded that children were “unlikely to have been knowingly left at risk,” Plowden believed “at the margins, resource issues, including fees, can play a part in determining when care proceedings are initiated”.

Plowden “therefore recommends that these fees should be abolished”, Straw said.

Kim Bromley-Derry, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said the news was “fantastic” for children’s services departments “struggling with shrinking budgets”. But he was disappointed that Plowden’s recommendation to abolish the fees next month had not been accepted, “given the current cost pressures on local authorities”.

He added: “The number of care proceedings required in any year is unpredictable when budgets are set and it is the uncertainty of how much money would be required that poses difficulties when planning for the year ahead.

“Rises in referrals and subsequent care proceedings have left authorities struggling to meet the costs of court fees, particularly as the grant that was meant to cover them was based on average numbers of proceedings prior to the recession and to the case of baby Peter and therefore did not take recent increases into account.”

In May 2008, to widespread criticism from councils, family court lawyers and judges, the fees for care and supervision proceedings by councils rose from £150 to a maximum £4,825. The Ministry of Justice distributed £40m to the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Welsh Assembly to alleviate the effects on local authority budgets.

Plowden said the introduction of the Public Law Outline in April 2008 rather than the rise in fees was more likely to have caused the fall in care applications in spring and autumn of that year “as local authorities familiarised themselves with the new court procedures and carried out the work required”.

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