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Court Fees (Public Law Family Proceedings)

Volume 516: debated on Thursday 21 October 2010

Following the recommendation by Francis Plowden in his “Review of Court Fees in Child Care Proceedings” on 15 March 2010, Jack Straw, the former Secretary of State for Justice, announced that the court fees charged to local authorities for care and supervision proceedings would be abolished from April 2011. I have carefully considered the decision of the former Secretary of State and believe that there is no justification that these fees should be abolished and as such they will remain.

Protecting vulnerable children is paramount and I do not believe that continuing to charge these court fees will place vulnerable children at risk. Local authorities have a statutory duty to investigate instances when they suspect a child is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm and it would be unlawful for local authorities to consider financial considerations when deciding whether to do so. There is little, if any, empirical evidence to suggest that fees are a deterrent to local authorities commencing care and supervision proceedings. Indeed, since 2008 current figures show a general rise in applications being issued.

Francis Plowden’s review found that resource issues could play a part in determining whether proceedings were initiated, however, he only believed this occurred “at the margins”. He confirmed that this conclusion was based on anecdotal evidence alone and also stated that it was unlikely that children have been knowingly left at unavoidable risk by local authorities.

The fundamental principles in setting court fees at levels that reflect the cost of the service being provided are now more important than ever in the drive to ensure all Departments are transparent and accountable for the money spent on public services. Specifically, fee charging:

improves decision-making and accountability by providing greater transparency of the true cost and benefits of the services provided by both charging and paying authority.

promotes the efficient allocation of resources enabling authorities to identify particular pressures. Local authorities can then ensure sufficient funding is made available from their overall resources to pay court fees and other necessary expenditure in pursuant of their statutory obligations.

The cost of keeping these fees has been considered and built in as appropriate to the spending review settlements 2010 for those Departments affected—the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Welsh Assembly Government.

Furthermore, in light of the work currently being undertaken by the Family Justice Review Panel it would be premature to remove the fees for care and supervision proceedings. The review panel is looking at options for reform in both public law and private law cases. The review is due to publish its final report in autumn 2011 and I will review the fees for care and supervision proceedings following these findings and any proposals that seek to change the way in which these cases are dealt with by the courts.