Cash-strapped councils are failing to recruit experienced lawyers who can deal with complex family cases, the chair of the Law Society’s children committee has warned.
Denise Lester told Community Care an increasing number of local authorities are not recruiting “adequately qualified senior lawyers with good advocacy skills who are able to deal with complex cases”.
Instead, she claimed, councils struggling to balance their budgets are relying on locum lawyers from abroad and paralegals.
“It’s a busy locum market for local authority lawyers because councils don’t want to lock people into permanent contracts. But if you’re using locum lawyers from different jurisdictions, or paralegals, there’s no guarantee they’ll have the right level of relevant experience to make critical decisions,” Lester said.
“Local authorities drive the carriage of the case so it’s vital we have experienced, suitably qualified child care solicitors to work in tandem with guardians,” she continued.
“Councils need more resources, otherwise children and social workers will not be receiving the service they deserve.”
All local authority lawyers should be accredited by the Law Society’s children panel, she said, describing it as “a demonstrable acknowledgement of their experience”.
One family lawyer, who did not wish to be named, agreed there were quality issues, admitting she is often “horrified” at the variable standards across local authorities.
Their concerns follow warnings from guardians and lawyers that law firms are managing the rise in care applications by appointing junior staff to complex cases, while legal aid cuts are putting lawyers under huge pressure to do more work for less money.
Colin Green, chair of the families, communities and young people committee at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, suggested councils may be struggling to recruit experienced lawyers because of pressures hitting the child protection system.
The growing volume and complexity of cases has swamped the system, he said, including the number of lawyers needed to advise on, prepare and present cases to court.
“In this context we are unaware of local authorities reducing the number of specialist lawyers available for such cases.
“It is more likely that local authorities are facing difficulties in increasing the supply of specialist child protection lawyers to meet the increased demand and so are forced to use non-specialists, in order to ensure cases are not delayed,” Green said.
The solution, he added, is to streamline processes in courts and local authorities “to reduce delay, and therefore make the best use of the existing capacity in the system”.
Legal cuts threaten family court cases, warn guardians