I am today announcing the outcome of the recent consultation on “Public Law Family Fees”. The consultation published on 19 December 2007 and the consultation closed on 11 March 2008. One hundred and eleven responses were received from local authorities, law professionals, the judiciary and other stakeholder bodies.
After careful consideration of these, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice has decided to proceed with the increases proposed. The Statutory Instruments were laid before Parliament on 9 April 2008.
During the course of consultation, the Government introduced an adjustment into the local government finance settlement figures to make visible the sums attributable to these proposals. The purpose of this adjustment was to ensure that a valid comparison could be made between 2007-08 and 2008-09 for each authority’s grant increase. The authorities generally now recognise that funding has been made available within the revenue support grant. Indeed, the total of £40 million is likely to exceed the total fees payable because it assumes that the maximum fee is paid in each case. In reality, some cases following the new ‘Public Law Outline’ procedure (implemented this month, introduces revised judicial case management procedures to be introduced in all family courts) will be resolved at earlier stages and pay a lower fee. I therefore believe that we have responded in full to those responses that objected to the proposals on the basis that it was not clear that authorities had been funded, or that they had been insufficiently funded, to pay these fees.
The second main theme of the responses was that authorities would be improperly influenced by financial considerations and would not always act in the best interests of children. Local authorities are under a statutory duty to protect children at risk of significant harm. Both the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, in their responses to the consultation, confirmed that local authorities are not influenced by cost considerations in their approach to initiating proceedings or in their decisions about appropriate pre-proceedings work. The practical effect of the statutory duty in this instance is to require authorities to ensure that adequate budgetary provision is made to pay the necessary court fees, and to ensure that individual decisions are not affected by budgetary considerations. In practice, most local authorities pay court fees from a legal department or similar central budget, rather than from a children’s services budget that is the responsibility of individual social workers making decisions on the ground, with the cost of court fees being a small proportion of the overall cost of child care proceedings. For these reasons, I am satisfied that the proposals do not in fact create a risk that local authorities will neglect their statutory duty causing children to be harmed.
These fee increases are necessary to ensure that the family courts are properly funded and are designed to fit with wider reforms on child protection proceedings. They are a further step in our strategy to ensure that the system of court fees is fair and sustainable, and they reflect the long-standing policy of Governments of all persuasions that statutory fees should generally be set at a level that recovers the cost of the service provided (but no more).
The current proposals will only affect fees paid by public bodies and not individuals. Fees for applications by parents in care and adoption proceedings will remain unchanged.
The response to the consultation paper will be published in full within the next two months.