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Straw in "astonishing" U-turn on court fees

23 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).

Joanne Brown, specialist in care proceedings at 4 Paper Buildings, told Solicitors Journal at the time of the fee increases, before the case of Baby P: “Will it take another dead baby and a very expensive public inquiry to turn things round?”

Brown said the announcement that fees were being abolished was “astonishing” but it was not coupled with any additional resources for legal or social work departments.

“There must be proper resources at all levels, including CAFCASS, so enough guardians are appointed,” she said. “We are all running cases for three or four hearings without a guardian. This is a situation where children will be failed across the board.”

Linda Lee, vice president of the Law Society, said the society had argued from the start that the increase in fees was likely to be “detrimental to the needs of abused or neglected children”.

She went on: “What is unfortunate is that government failed to listen to our arguments in the first instance and it has had to wait for this enquiry to redress the issue.

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.

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,” she 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.”

Plowden added 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.

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