The latest figures from Cafcass indicate that the number of care applications decreased by five per cent in the period April 2013 to March 2014, compared to the previous year. This was the first fall in the annual rate since the Baby P scandal.
Just to recap, baby Peter Connelly suffered more than fifty injuries over an eight-month period, during which he was repeatedly seen by Haringey Children’s services. Despite this, Haringey failed to take any action to remove Peter from his home. Peter died in August 2007. His mother, her boyfriend and his brother were all found guilty of “causing or allowing the death of a child or vulnerable person”. A number of inquiries were subsequently ordered, and the child protection services of Haringey and other agencies were widely criticised.
Local authorities responded to this by dramatically increasing the number of care applications that they were making, in an apparent attempt to ensure that nothing ‘slipped through the net’ and to avoid criticism for failure to act. By May 2013 the number of care applications had risen by a massive 70 per cent since the Baby P case.
Now that trend has finally reversed. Whether the reversal will be permanent remains to be seen, but I hope it is.
It is many years since I did any public law child care work, so I admit that I am not well placed to comment, but I have always been uneasy about the increase in care applications. Obviously, all cases should be dealt with individually, rather than determined by events elsewhere. To put a family through the enormous trauma of care proceedings when they weren’t absolutely necessary is a terrible abuse of state power.
Having said that, I understand that the number of care orders made has increased over the period since the Baby P scandal, although I haven’t seen any statistics for the number of applications in which care orders were not made. Of course, it could be that courts have also been caught up in the ‘avoidance of blame’ culture, making care orders ‘just in case’, rather than fully investigating other avenues – some recent case law has suggested that this might be the case.
The other thing to say is that all of these care applications have been a huge drain on resources, just at a time when resources have been particularly scarce. And I’m not just talking about the financial cost. The cost in time spent by the various agencies involved and the courts must be enormous.
That, of course, must have had a ‘knock-on’ effect for other cases using the family courts (or perhaps I should now say ‘Family Court’). Care proceedings notoriously occupy a large amount of court time, with hearings often taking several days. The increase in care applications must inevitably have led to other family proceedings being put back in court lists and therefore taking longer to resolve. With the recent increase in the number of litigants in person also causing delays, any reduction in the workload of the courts must be especially welcome.