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Cafcass has noted a sharp rise in care order applications in December 2008.
Cafcass statistics for December revealed that it has handled 693 requests for care cases, representing a 66 per cent increase on December 2007, when it received 417 applications and its highest number ever in a single month.
Cafcass Chief Executive, Anthony Douglas, attributes the increase to publicity about the death of Baby P. Anticipating the rise, he wrote in The Observer on Sunday 23 November: "Whilst it is too early to be definitive, we may already be seeing a 'Baby P effect' in a reported increase in applications to court by local authorities to protect children in many parts of England, and in more cautious decision-making about contact applications in some cases. This is hardly surprising. Negative publicity usually leads to institutional risk aversion. This may be, if confirmed, good news for those children who need greater protection, and bad news for others who need more contact with a wide range of family members, not less."
However, there are two further explanations that might better account for the increase in December's care order applications.
Firstly, local authorities may have delayed making care order applications while they prepared cases in compliance with the Public Law Outline (PLO). In May 2008 the number of care order applications in London dropped by 30 per cent since the introduction of the PLO pilot in September 2007. In some London boroughs care order applications reportedly fell by 75 per cent since the pilot commenced.
The PLO came into force in England and Wales on 1 April 2008 and replaced the Protocol for Judicial Case Management in Public Law Children Act Cases. The revised statutory guidance places greater emphasis on the work undertaken by local authorities before care proceedings can commence.
Secondly, in April the government put into effect plans to increase the fees for care order applications. In May the Family Proceedings Fees Order came into force and the fees paid by a local authority to go to court to protect a child at risk from abuse rose from £150 to £4,825. There were reports in July 2008 that there were delays in transferring the extra funding from Her Majestys Court Service's (HMCS) budget to local authorities to enable them to pay the increased fees or that the amount of funding was insufficient for demand.
Should the number of care order applications continue to increase or level out, this might dispel the argument put forward by many family lawyers who said that there would real risk that the new fee regime would lead to vulnerable children being harmed as local authorities would be forced to make financial considerations before commencing care proceedings.
In November 2008, Hillingdon Borough Council, Leeds City Council, Liverpool City Council and Norfolk County Council lost a judicial review against the government over the increase in care order application fees.
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