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Straw scraps court fees for care proceedings

16 March 2010

In an extraordinary U-turn, justice secretary Jack Straw has decided to scrap the court fees paid by councils for care proceedings.

There were strong protests from the Law Society, the Bar Council and the NSPCC when massive increases in fees, from £150 to over £4,825, were imposed in 2008.

Four councils, supported by the society and the NSPCC, launched a judicial review, but it was rejected by the High Court (see solicitorsjournal.com 18 November 2008).

Straw told Parliament this week that court fees in care and supervision proceedings would be abolished from April 2011, following a review by former PwC partner and judicial appointments commissioner Francis Plowden.

Plowden said the decision to raise fees was “based on a number of misconceptions” and perhaps influenced by the complex arrangements for safeguarding and poor quality of data.

He called for a comprehensive review of the data on care proceedings collected by local authorities, the Courts Service, CAFCASS and the LSC.

“More importantly, policy and resource management initiatives sometimes seem to have been initiated without a full understanding of their knock-on effects – usually elsewhere within the public sector as far as resources are concerned.”

Plowden went on: “I believe that, at the margins, resource issues can play a part in determining when and if care proceedings are initiated or that alternative courses of action are preferred – at least for the time being.

“In drawing this conclusion, I think it unlikely that children have been left at avoidable risk, certainly not knowingly, on the part of the local authority.

“More plausibly, a child may be left in voluntary accommodation for longer than desirable or a sub-optimal placement with a family member attempted which, in due course, may prove unworkable.

“If resource issues do play a part, then the increased court fees – although they are not actually the full cost as intended – have contributed to them.”

Plowden said that court fees, while relatively small in overall budgetary terms, were large enough for the authorities to take sometimes elaborate steps to avoid paying them.

“They are certainly not treated as irrelevant,” Plowden said. “Given the increase for a large local authority from, say, £12,000 in 2007/08 to around £300,000 in 2008/09, the fees now need to be separately budgeted for and controlled in a way which was not necessary previously.

“And at the current year’s level of activity this figure is likely to be much greater, around £1m according to one authority visited.”

In his report on child protection and the death of Baby P in March 2009, Lord Laming recommended that a review should be carried out to assess whether court fees charged to local authorities were a deterrent to starting proceedings.

Plowden said that while the origins of his review lay in concerns about “the tragic life and death” of Baby P, the new fee regime was not introduced until after his death and could not have played a part in the case.

Categorised in:

Procedures Police & Prisons Divorce Children