Financial pressures on family justice could increase risks

Cuts in legal aid fees for family cases and a “massive” hike in court fees could put vulnerable children at increased risk, Desmond Browne QC, the 2009 chair of the Bar Council, has warned.


In his inaugural speech last month, Browne noted that from 1 May 2008 the court fees for a local authority in a care case rose from £150 to £4,825 for a fully contested matter: “It is impossible to believe that this massive increase in fees does not enter the minds of some councils, when deciding whether to intervene to protect a child from abuse.

“If the trend has recently reversed, as some press reports have suggested, it is desperately sad that it should have taken a case like Baby P to do so.” Social work departments reportedly stepped up interventions where children were believed to be at risk after news broke of this tragic case.

Browne said the services of public and family law barristers were needed “more than ever” in times of “severe financial pressure”. Access to justice meant nothing unless it was “effective access”, which required client choice and quality representation for clients.

However, the Legal Services Commission proposes slashing £13m off fees payable to family legal aid barristers, which was likely to “accelerate the flight out of publicly funded work”. Browne said he had been “saddened” to hear a senior member of the Family Law Bar Association saying he would not advise a conscientious BVC graduate to take up publicly funded family work, at this year’s Young Bar Conference. “Similar advice is being given on a daily basis by tutors in universities up and down the land,” he said.  He warned that, as with the NHS, this was not an area that could simply be abandoned to market forces.

 

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