Family lawyers urge caution on child care proceedings review

21 Sep 2005

Family law specialists have warned the Lord Chancellor not to put cost-savings before the safety and interests of vulnerable children.

In an open letter, family law group, Resolution, and the Association of Lawyers for Children (ALC), have voiced concerns over the speed at which the Lord Chancellor is undertaking his review of child care proceedings in England and Wales.

The review was announced in July and is expected to report in January 2006, giving very little time, say Resolution, for proper consultation and consideration of important and sensitive issues affecting the interests of vulnerable children. The letter, signed by chair of Resolution’s children committee, Yvonne Brown, and by ALC’s chair, Liz Goldthorpe, says: “we understand that one of the government’s concerns is the rising costs of child care proceedings. While we appreciate the need to ensure that there is proper use of public funds and good value for money in child care proceedings, we believe that the need to contain costs must be balanced by society’s responsibility to protect children.”

Resolution and ALC have asked the Lord Chancellor to provide the figures which back his fears of escalating costs, so they can help ascertain the underlying cause of any cost rises.
The letter goes on to say: “previous reviews of child protection laws have been carefully considered and changes to legislation undertaken only when the issues have been widely discussed and researched and a degree of consensus achieved. We are concerned that this timeframe will not allow for a similarly measured approach.”

Resolution, which represents over 5000 family lawyers and the ALC, which has over 1200 members, have asked for a meeting with the Lord Chancellor to discuss their concerns. Says Yvonne Brown, “as an organisation committed to safeguarding the interests of children, we are keen to make a positive contribution to the debate.”

Liz Goldthorpe adds “the ALC is extremely concerned that the government’s current safeguarding agenda risks being seriously undermined by the way in which this review is proposing to undertake its work.”

Notes for editors:
Resolution (formerly the Solicitors Family Law Association) is an association of over 5000 members who are committed to promoting a non-confrontational atmosphere in which family law matters are dealt with in a sensitive, constructive and cost-effective way. It sets high standards of good practice in family law and runs an accreditation scheme for specialist family lawyers.

The ALC is a membership organisation which promotes justice for children and young people within the legal system in England and Wales. It is also a pressure group which lobbies in favour of establishing properly funded legal mechanisms to enable all children and young people to have access to justice and lobbies against the diminution of such mechanisms.

Full text of letter:
CHILD CARE PROCEEDINGS REVIEW
We have of course seen the terms of reference for the review. We note that in these terms, there is a reference to “over-representation”. We are unclear what this “over-representation” refers to - is this over-representation of the child or of family members or is this referring to the “tandem” model? It would be helpful if this term could be more clearly defined, but as it stands, we are concerned that the use of this term appears to indicate a degree of pre-judgement of the findings of the review.

We understand that one of the review’s concerns to be the rising costs of child care proceedings. While we appreciate the need to ensure that there is proper use of public funds and good value for money in child care proceedings, we believe that the need to contain costs must be balanced by society’s responsibility to protect children. In order to inform debate, it would be useful to see the figures for rising costs and any analysis of what is driving costs upwards. Is it the intention of the review to publish this information in advance of any initial findings of the review? We believe this to be essential to facilitate serious and informed debate. Indeed, without this information, it is difficult to see what outcomes can be achieved as, without an understanding of the costs drivers, it may be difficult to formulate meaningful solutions or judge the findings of the review.

We understand that there has already been work undertaken on the operation of the child care proceedings. We had meetings with civil servants a year ago who were looking at this area in the context of the Fundamental Review of Legal Aid and were given to understand that considerable work had already been carried out. Will the current review be taking into account the work we believe was undertaken by the Fundamental Review of Legal Aid and how will that feed into the new review?

We are also concerned about the timeframe for the review. Announced in July, it is intended to report at the end of January. This only allows six months for a very serious enquiry. Previous reviews of child protection laws have been carefully considered and changes to legislation undertaken only when the issues have been widely discussed and researched and a degree of consensus achieved. We are concerned that this timeframe will not allow for a similarly measured approach. Is it the intention of Government to then consult on the outcome of the findings of the review before considering any changes to the existing system of child care proceedings?
Shortly after the review was announced, a presentation was made to the Family Justice Council, in which it was said that an Advisory Group would be established, to which our various organisations would be invited to join. In early August, we received copy letters assuring us that there would be opportunities to feed into the review, and mentioning an “event” in early November at which “stakeholders” could give their views, however no further mention has been made of an Advisory Group. Could you confirm whether an Advisory Group is being established and if so, how the timeframe will fit in with the review’s remit to report at the end of January 2006? We would be concerned if the only opportunity to feed into the review was at the proposed event in November, when although there would be an opportunity to contribute, the review will already have formed some preliminary views. We do not see how our views can be taken into account and properly investigated if we can only contribute them in early November, when the review is due to report at the end of January.

We are concerned that there have been no initial discussions with either of our organisations about the problems within the current system. We would wish to make a positive contribution to this review, but feel we have not been given any real opportunity to contribute. We would welcome an early meeting to discuss our concerns and to establish means of a constructive dialogue between ourselves and the Department’s review team.

We will be releasing this letter to the press once you have had time to consider the contents. We will also be copying it to various key stakeholders in the Family Justice System.

Yours sincerely,

Liz Goldthorpe
Chair, Association of Lawyers for Children

Yvonne Brown
Chair, Resolution’s Children Committee