Vulnerable children failed by new laws meant to protect them

Vulnerable children have been failed by Government guidelines designed to protect their welfare during court battles, an official report has warned.
Children involved in social work care proceedings have been neglected under the guidelines and parents have been left without access to reliable legal advice, according to a report published by the Ministry of Justice today.

The Public Law Outline, introduced in May last year, is designed to protect children during court cases to remove them from their parents, but an early evaluation ordered by the Government said it may have failed.

Under the guidelines, each child must be assigned a guardian to look after their welfare independently of their parents and social workers “on day one” of care proceedings.

But “significant delays” in appointing the guardians meant children’s welfare was being forgotten at the crucial early stage of the court process, the report by the National Centre for Social Research and the Oxford Centre for Family Law and Policy found.

Parents were also coming to court unprepared to defend themselves because an increase in lawyers’ fees has made good quality legal advice unaffordable for many, the report said.

Judges and lawyers felt most court cases were still overrunning beyond the 40 week target, while local authorities said the cost and workload involved in care proceedings had risen sharply.

Researcher Peter Keogh described the current situation as an “adverse climate” for children.

He said: “The cost of bringing a case to court has increased significantly for Local Authorities. Courts are also under a great deal of pressure because the number of applications to place a child in care or under supervision has increased following the murder of Baby Peter.

“This is the adverse climate in which the Public Law Outline must operate, but it must operate well if the system is to work in the interests of children”