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Rise in child abuse cases puts pressure on legal aid budget
by Frances Gibb, Legal Editor 28th December 2006
A large rise in the numbers of children at risk of abuse is threatening a fresh crisis for the cash-strapped legal aid system.
The cost of court hearings over whether a child should be removed from his or her home has soared by 62 per cent in five years, to £208 million last year in England and Wales.
Officials are also predicting a further increase, which will add to pressure on the £2 billion legal aid budget and cut funds for other civil disputes.
Ministers’ concern about the rise in cases, which is shared by senior family judges, has led to the establishment of a Whitehall working party of officials from several departments.
There are some 4,000 care cases a year, but in all there are 11,000 abuse-related hearings that result in a court order. About 3,000 children a year are removed from their homes.
Crispin Passmore, the director of the Community Legal Service at the Legal Service Commission, which runs the legal aid scheme, said: “This is probably the fastest-growing area of the legal aid budget. The volume of cases has gone up by 14 per cent and expenditure by over 60 per cent.”
Some 25,000 people received legal aid to be represented in care cases in 2005-06, he said, with each case costing an average of £25,000. “If this level of demand continues and we are faced with a demand for another £100 million, there aren’t many places to get it from.”
Mr Passmore said that action was being looked at on several fronts: the delays in proceedings, which take between 42 and 51 weeks to come to court; inadequate preparation of cases; and the level of fees paid to child care lawyers.
“The level of protection that society demands is going up, and it is very hard for local authorities to maintain a qual- ity service. But we must make sure cases are prepared to the highest standard. The level of service we provide to the kids is not negotiable.”
Caroline Little, joint chairman of the Association of Lawyers for Children, gave warning over the Government’s plans to tackle rising demand by cutting fees paid to family lawyers.
“There is a great danger of lawyers being forced out of the market. We are like nurses. We do the job most people don’t ever want to know about.”
Anthony Douglas, chief executive of Cafcass, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, confirmed the rise in public law cases. But he insisted that social workers were not making overzealous or wrong decisions. “Whenever we look at these cases, we rarely find any that are wrongly taken . . . we don’t find a cadre of children who should not be there.”
The rise was of concern — not least because there were still about 5,000 children who were the subject of a care order but for whom no suitable carer could be found. There was a move to try to place more such children with extended family and friends rather than relying on state care, be it a residential home or foster care, he added. Such placements had “positive outcomes”, he said.
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