Page last updated at 03:34 GMT, Tuesday, 1 July 2008 04:34 UK

Court costs 'risk' for children

By Phil Kemp
Law in Action, BBC Radio 4

Family in silhouette
Care order fees have risen to over 4,000

A rise in court costs could be deterring local authorities from applying for protection for vulnerable children, the BBC has learned.

Fees for care orders in England and Wales have risen 25-fold since April.

An increase in local authority funding should cover the increase - but some council officials say it is too low and has not been allocated properly.

The Ministry of Justice said experts concluded the changes would not put vulnerable children at further risk.

Reports suggest that across England and Wales applications for care orders have fallen by between 20% and 60% since the changes.

Child care orders are meant to protect vulnerable children like Angela's three daughters.

Angela - not her real name - had a drink and drugs problem. When a concerned relative informed the council that she was taking crack cocaine, the local authority applied to the courts to have her children removed from her care.

The principle of charging a fee to bring proceedings to protect vulnerable children to me is shameful, absolutely shameful
Nicholas Crichton, family court judge

According to Angela, it was the experience of going to court which turned things around for her.

"The court proceedings really scared me," she told BBC Radio 4's Law in Action programme.

"This is a judge. A man of the law kind of thing. I thought what the judge says to me stands."

Angela's life is back on track. She underwent rehabilitation at a residential unit which got her off the drugs and now her three children are back home with her in London.

Now there is concern that cases like hers might be less likely to get as far as the courts and that children could be put at risk because of changes to the child case proceedings.

The fees local authorities have to pay to the courts in England and Wales when applying for care orders have gone up from 150 to more than 4,000.

Nicholas Crichton, the presiding judge at Wells Street family proceedings court in central London who took Angela's children away from her, is not happy about the rise in fees.

He told the BBC: "The very significant increase in the court fees which have to be paid in order to start proceedings is a significant disincentive to local authorities to take proceedings.

Vulnerable children will not be put at further risk by the introduction of new fees in care proceedings
Ministry of Justice

"The principle of charging a fee to bring proceedings to protect vulnerable children to me is shameful, absolutely shameful."

The government says it has ensured that local authorities have been given extra money to cover the increase in costs.

But some senior council officials are concerned that they have not been given enough because funds were allocated using a general formula and not according to how many care order applications individual councils actually issue.

'Over-stretched'

The Children and Family Court Advisory Service says applications are down nationally by around 20%.

The Family Law Bar Association says on average, reports to them suggest applications are down by around a third, with some areas down by as much as 60%.

But the rise in fees has coincided with the introduction of a new procedure called the Public Law Outline. This means local authorities need to have explored all other possible options for placing children with the extended family before applying to the courts.

Critics, however, say it creates more work for already over-stretched social workers.

Martha Cover, from the Family Law Bar Association, described some of the cases that have come to her attention which suggest that local authorities might now be delaying applying to the courts for care orders.

Ms Cover said: "I know of two cases where children have had very suspicious injuries, bruising in areas of the body which cannot be bruised by normal play or normal childhood accidents and very suspicious bruising to a baby of four months.

"These are the kind of cases that are simply being left to languish under voluntary accommodation being with nobody being able to plan for the children."

Ms Cover says this inaction would have been extremely rare before the changes in April.

A statement from the Ministry of Justice said: "Vulnerable children will not be put at further risk by the introduction of new fees in care proceedings.

"When we consulted on this issue both the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Children's Services did not accept that local authorities would be influenced in their approach to dealing with children at risk by cost considerations."

Law in Action is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 1600 BST on Tuesday 1 July. You can find more information, Listen Again or download a podcast at www.bbc.co.uk/lawinaction


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