Children left at risk by rise in legal costs

The number of vulnerable youngsters taken into care has fallen after a 3,000% increase in court charges
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Children at risk of abuse are being left unprotected following a sharp fall in the numbers being taken into care, a children's charity says.

Figures obtained by The Independent from Cafcass, the children's legal charity, in the wake of the Baby P case, show that more than 600 fewer court applications were made by local authorities to take children into care in the past six months compared with the same period in 2007.

Lawyers blamed the 20 per cent drop on a 32-fold increase in the court fees charged for care proceedings imposed by the Government, which rose from £150 to £4,825 from 1 April.

Additional changes requiring local authorities to explore options for placing children with the extended family before applying to the courts were also increasing risks, they said.

In the six months from April to September 2008, after the rise in costs was introduced, 2,568 care applications were made, compared with 3,199 in the same period in 2007, a fall of one fifth.

Barbara Esam, a lawyer for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said: "I don't see how, all of a sudden, we have got fewer children who need the protection of the court. I don't think because of the size of the reduction we can be confident that we are making the best choices for all children. I hope the Laming inquiry into the Baby P case will monitor the effect of the fee increase. I think it's a real concern."

Piers Pressdee, co-chairman of the Association of Lawyers for Children, said: "Children are being placed at risk because local authorities don't have the means to fulfil everything they should be doing before taking proceedings. It will lead to care proceedings not being taken when they should be. The clear advantage of taking care proceedings is that it is the best means of ensuring the safety of the child and of any future children in the family."

Nicholas Crichton, a senior judge at Wells Street family proceedings court, London, said the large increase in court fees was a "significant disincentive" to local authorities to take care proceedings. "The principle of charging a fee to bring proceedings to protect vulnerable children to me is shameful, absolutely shameful," he told the BBC.

Ministers have defended the 3,000 per cent rise in fees on the grounds that it is necessary to ensure the courts are self-funding, and that councils had been awarded £40m to cover the increased legal costs. But the rise has caused anger among social workers. Four councils, supported by the NSPCC, challenged the Government's decision in the courts. But, in a ruling earlier this month, the judges said the £40m compensation provided by the Government was "sufficient".

Around 28,000 children are in the care of local authorities in England, after a legal process which takes an average of 52 weeks.

In a separate development, Ofsted, the inspectorate for children's services, said local authorities were failing to investigate serious cases of child abuse adequately where things had gone wrong. In a review of 92 cases, it said 38 had been inadequately carried out and 20 had been conducted well.