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Posts tagged ‘Cafcass’

Interview with Damian Norris

Tell us about yourself

As at  1st November this year I have been a solicitor for twenty years. I qualified later than most having done a variety of things after my Law Degree at Southampton (1980 – 1983)  including advertising copywriter, worked in the City for a year  or so in the heady mid 80’s, graphic design, petrol pump monkey, painter and decorator on building sites, gardener and a host of other long-forgotten best forgotten fill-in jobs. Accidentally started doing family law and felt at home in the hurly burly world of the family courts. I quickly learnt to pick up a case and run with it and ended up doing Care work which strikes me as one of the most worthwhile ways of earning a living I can think of. I love the people involved – the great and the good as well as the mad and bad! I like the fact that the other lawyers in Care – even we disagree completely with each other – are usually able to work together for the good of the children involved. There is a good deal of respect for the other lawyers because they are doing a hard job in difficult circumstances but we do try and do our best. Sometimes we even succeed.

What drew you to the law?

I loved history and the people I respected at the time, Thomas Moore, Erasmus (that lot) were often lawyers (as were the artists Cezanne and Sisley). On the very first day at University, my tutor said to me: “I know why you’re doing law. For the money!”  I didn’t realise that. Not sure how true that is even now!

What do you offer clients?

Straight talking and absolute commitment to do my best for my client.

What do you do when you are not working?

I have three great children so that takes up most of the time. Otherwise I read if I can and paint portraits. I have painted all my life.

Can you sum yourself up in 5 words?     

No. I’m far too vain.

                                                                              

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June Venters QC Top Ranked in Chambers UK 2016

Chambers 2016

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Top Ranked Leading Firm Chambers 2015

June Venters QC writes to the Lord Chancellor about her concerns concerning changes which have been made to legal aid

June Venters QC has written personally to the Lord Chancellor, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Chief Executive of the Legal aid agency to express her immense concern at the change to the means testing of legal aid.  She drew to his attention one particular case as an example in respect of which she is instructed and which involves potentially serious risks to an abducted child where urgent High Court Orders were necessary to seek the child’s return to the jurisdiction of England and Wales.    Legal aid was not available because the client did not qualify on means even though she was in receipt of a “passported benefit.”

Extracts of her letter are as follows:

I am writing to you to express my immense and continuing concern about the inadequacies of our failing justice system brought about in particular by the implementation of what I can only describe as illogical and unfair legal aid decisions which are seriously impacting, in my view, on the ability to secure necessary access to justice.

I have always accepted that legal aid needed to be controlled and I accept in the past just as with any system there has been abuse but what is now happening is that there is a justice system for the rich and none for the rest of society in many instances and I cannot believe that is the desire or intention of this Government. 

I wish to draw to your attention one particular example with which I am involved and in respect of which I have spent many hours of providing pro bono work.

My client failed the means test because of recent changes to legal aid whereby even though previously the receipt of certain state benefits would automatically “passport” someone to legal aid eligibility this is no longer the case and capital has to be taken into consideration.

She explained that in her client’s case the client whilst having a property which had, on paper, an equity of £200,000, in practice she was not in a financially credible position sufficient to enable her to raise monies against the equity in order to fund her legal costs.

The client was in receipt of income-related employment and support allowance [a “passport” benefit] but because of the equity in her property [which was not in dispute within these proceedings and thus could not be disregarded] she was not eligible for legal aid.

She went on to say in her letter:

It has to be questioned why it is that one Government department deems my client’s income sufficiently limited so as to justify supplementing it by way of a state benefit when another Government department responsible for justice deems my client’s financial position sufficiently able to fund her own legal costs.   I understand that the theory behind this illogical decision is that my client could raise a loan against her property, however, my client’s debt is such that she is not able to acquire a loan and in any event if she did this would increase her outgoings placing an additional burden on her income necessitating further supplementation by way of state benefits..

I urge some consideration for changing the current policy with regard to legal aid financial “passporting.”  It is not serving the public and in my view is placing children at risk such as in this case.

One further issue and which I know has been raised by our professional bodies, the removal of legal aid per se in relation to family cases [save for child abduction] unless it meets the domestic violence criteria which remains increasingly difficult is also having a seriously negative impact on the most vulnerable members in society.  Time and time again I am faced with family issues that cannot be resolved without legal advice and representation and at times court intervention. At times members of the public and their children are left in an untenable situation and which then impacts negatively on their health which in turn affects their ability to work and takes up NHS resources.  I know that as an individual I am not going to achieve the abandonment of this policy when our professional organisations have failed to do so but I felt I could not ignore this subject whilst writing about my concerns.  It is my view that the short term saving the Government will have made with regard to this policy will be the Government’s long term loss overall although without proper financial monitoring and reporting the losses that will be incurred to other Government departments as a result of this policy such as NHS and DWP will simply be absorbed without the cause for such losses being obvious.

I am perfectly aware of the drive to provide pro bono services.  I have done this the whole of my career and continue to offer a pro bono clinic one evening every week.  However, if I am to remain in business and employ staff and I hope provide training to future lawyers I cannot undertake only Pro Bono work as much as I would like to do so. 

I urge this Government to review its policies with regard to legal aid and in particular with regard to the specific issue which I have addressed in this letter concerning the “passporting” of benefits. 

Emotional abuse cases ‘up by nearly 50% in a year’

The number of children reported to the police and children’s services by charity helplines has almost doubled in the space of year, the NSPCC has said today [30.05.14]. The children’s charity’s anonymous helpline assisted over 8,000 people last year.

Isn’t it ironic, evidence that emotional child abuse has increased by 50% and yet the number of care applications has reduced – should we not be questioning this?

National picture of care applications in England for 2013-14

Cafcass releases statistics for care applications for the 152 English local authorities – May 2014

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, show the number of care applications received per 10,000 child population – the rate of care applications – by each local authority (LA) in England with children’s services responsibilities. The numbers run from 2008-09, the year of the tragic Peter Connelly (known as “Baby Peter”) case in Haringey, to 2013-14. They show that over this period the rate of application rose from 5.9 in 2008-09 to 9.7 in 2012-13, a rise of 64%, but that it has dropped to 9.2 in 2013-14. This is lower than 2012-13 levels but is still higher than 2011-12 levels.

The rate of care application is significant as it helps identify trends in care proceedings independent of population growth.

Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive of Cafcass said:

“After year on year rises in applications it is not surprising to see that the rates have steadied – a cohort of children that were at risk have now been protected through the action of local authorities in bringing care proceedings. These children have also seen swifter justice, with remarkable reductions in the duration of these proceedings across the country. The fact that these reductions have been made in many cases ahead of the introduction of the 26 week limit set out in the Revised Public Law Outline, the Children and Family Act is even more remarkable and shows how well Cafcass, local authorities and judges are now working together. We will continue to meet with family justice colleagues to understand the differences in rates, to identify the best pockets of practice, and ensure that social work practice is developed to provide a sharp service that meets the needs of each individual child”.

The need to ensure that Justice is properly served has been re-enforced by the court of appeal very recently in the following case: Re C (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 128

The need to ensure that Justice is properly served has been re-enforced by the court of appeal very recently in the following case:

Re C (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 128

Appeal by parents against care and placement orders where the mother has speech and hearing impediment and the father is profoundly deaf. Guidelines given for cases involving a deaf parent. Appeal allowed and case remitted for rehearing.

This appeal concerned a young child whose mother has a low level of cognitive functioning and a speech and hearing impediment, and whose father is disabled by reason of profound deafness and who communicates via British Sign Language (BSL). This appeal was made by the parents against a full care order, dispensing with the parents’ consent to adoption and a placement for adoption order.

This appeal succeeded because the Local Authority and Professionals involved failed to recognise and ensure that appropriately trained BSL interpreter’s were instructed to assist the Father and the parenting assessment had failed to take into appropriate consideration the mother’s cognitive difficulties.  It made clear that courts should not be driven by the 26 week timetable if the disabilities of one or more parents require a longer timeframe to ensure an effective and meaningful assessment.

Not only did the failures in this case result in a successful appeal (with the consequent delayed outcome for the child), the Court of Appeal judgment also serves as a reminder that all organs of the state (including the local authority and CAFCASS) are subject to Equality Act 2010 legislation and therefore owe particular duties to disabled service users/disabled parents.

 

June Venters QC

Cafcass: there is a new ‘culture of urgency’ in the family courts

The family courts have begun to replace a “culture of delay” with a “culture of urgency”, the Chief Executive of Cafcass observes:

Anthony Douglas recently approved a recent drop in the average time taken to complete care applications, down to 30 weeks from double that two years ago. He said:

“A halving of the time a case takes in court gives the average child subject to care proceedings – an extra 6 months less in limbo. Of course, this only makes sense if the speed with which the child can be placed securely and safely with permanent carers, whether back home, with relatives or with approved carers outside of the family network, is also faster.”

However, he claims, if new children entering the care system simply join the “4,000 plus” already looking for homes and permanent carers, “the greater speed in the family courts will count for little.”

The dramatic decrease in care application completion times “is a huge shift in operational culture which we can build on in the years to come.”

From April this year, family courts will be expected to resolve care applications and decide whether children should stay with their birth families or enter the care system within a maximum of 26 weeks (six and a half months), except in exceptional circumstances.

Mr Douglas believes this timetable will now be met before the law changes, saying this is a “testimony to all those practitioners in the family justice system who have worked hard to bring it about.”

He added:

“I do not believe the fears about miscarriages of justice to parents by completing cases quicker are borne out. 26 weeks is still a very long time in a child’s life.”

Parents who abuse or neglect their children must show that they can change “in a matter of months, not years”, he said. Children “marooned” in the care system, with no sign of resolution or permanent placement “can easily lose their sense of hope and trust.”

This approval and the dismissal of speed leading to miscarriages of justice for parents from Sir Anthony Douglas should also be read in contrast with the recently reported decision of Re NL (A child) (Appeal: Interim Care Order: Facts and Reasons) [2014] EWHC 270 (Fam) Mrs Justice Pauffley.  In this case the court deprecated the widespread practice in care proceedings in the family proceedings court by which parties, usually the local authority, draft the ‘Facts and Reasons’ which are then adopted by the Justices.

In her judgment – which in his latest View (No 10) the President has recommended should be read by all care practitioners – Pauffley J said:

“Whilst I might be able to understand why such methods may have been developed, I am profoundly alarmed by their existence. Informal inquiries reveal, anecdotally, that the practices I have described are not confined to this area but are widespread across the country.”

She added:

“Seemingly, there were process failures in this case which significantly interfered with the most basic requirements for openness and transparency. There was, apparently, an established but largely clandestine arrangement between the local authority and the court which, to my mind, has considerable repercussions for justice and, equally importantly, the perception that justice will be done. It is fundamental that nothing is sent to the judge by one party unless it is copied simultaneously to every other party.

“Equally and just as importantly, it is difficult to view the Justices as having been independent and impartial if, as happened here, they simply adopted the local authority’s analysis of what their Findings and Reasons might comprise.”

Most notably and relevant to the approval of the speed now being exercised in the Family Courts is the comment made by Pauffley, J whereby she stated the following:

The judge noted that the reason why the local authority acted as it did concerning the report might be associated with the family justice reforms and the impetus to complete public law cases within 26 weeks. She commented:

“Justice must never be sacrificed upon the altar of speed.”

Words that many involved in the family courts would echo.

June Venters QC

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