Council at centre of costly care case is named

Mike Dodd,Cathy Gordon,Pa
Monday 27 September 2010 15:32

The local authority which tried to take three siblings into care but dropped the case after having run up huge costs in public money can be named today as Coventry City Council.

Judge Clifford Bellamy, who dealt with the original care proceedings, issued a judgment today in which he agreed to a BBC application that the council at the heart of the case should be identified.

In his original judgment, handed down in June, Judge Bellamy criticised the council, which was not being named at that time, over its handling of the case.

He also ordered it to pay a total of £100,000 towards the family's estimated costs of almost £400,000, which were funded with taxpayers' money through the Legal Services Commission.

Such a figure, the judge said, was a "matter of concern" in a case where "at the 11th hour" the authority sought leave to withdraw its application for care orders for the three children.

The "wider" costs issue had caused him concern, he said, adding: "In recent times the cost of family legal aid funding has been a matter of governmental concern and public debate."

It has been reported that expenditure on family legal aid has grown from £399 million in 2001/2002 to £582 million in 2007/2008 - a real-terms increase of 24%.

The judge said: "Although some may say that when it comes to issues relating to the welfare of a child the question of how much the proceedings cost should be secondary to the overriding requirement to achieve an outcome that is in the best interest of the child, this must be tempered by an acceptance that the availability of resources to fund public law Children Act proceedings is not limitless."

The case related to the authority's application for care orders in respect of three children, now aged 12, nine and eight, over allegations that their parents subjected them to unnecessary hospital admissions, medical examinations and tests and that this had been achieved by their having lied about or exaggerated the children's symptoms.

Judge Bellamy said it was a case that fell under the broad categorisation of fabricated or induced illness (FII).

The judge emphasised: "An allegation of FII is a very serious allegation to make against a parent and one that should not be made lightly.

"Before making an allegation of FII a local authority should be rigorous in satisfying itself that the evidence available, if accepted by the court, is capable of establishing to the requisite standard that there has in fact been fabricated or induced illness."

After re-evaluating the evidence, the council, which issued its application for the care orders in June 2008, had come to the conclusion that there "is no, or very little, material" capable of satisfying the "threshold criteria" for the orders to be made.

The judge described it as a case in which something had gone "badly wrong".

Costs orders against local authorities were "infrequently made", but he ruled that "the local authority's conduct of this case falls outside the band of what is reasonable".

The family's costs would in due course be paid by the Legal Services Commission, he said, but ordered the authority to pay £50,000 towards the costs of each parent.

The judge said the authority's own legal costs "are no doubt also substantial".

The application for Coventry to be named as the authority responsible was made by the BBC for BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, which wanted to report the case and identify the council. The children's parents also told the judge they wanted the council to be named.

Barrister Kate Wilson, for the BBC, had argued that the council should be identified because there was a strong public interest in its activities, particularly because of its about-turn in first seeking the children's immediate removal from their parents then withdrawing the application for care orders.

Other matters of interest included its poor decision-making process, its failure to follow national guidance on dealing with fabricated or induced illness, its failure at the end of the proceedings to consult the children's guardian, and the financial impact of these failings on the public purse affecting matters of legal aid budgets and questions of how the local authority allocated its funds.

There was also the judge's finding that the local authority acted outside the range of what was reasonable.

The council said it should remain anonymous because there was a real risk that if it was identified the children involved in the case would also be identifiable.

But the judge rejected that argument, saying it was a very low risk.

He said: "The residents of Coventry have the right to know that the local authority concerned in this was Coventry City Council and the BBC has the right to report that fact."

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