Operation of the Family Courts - Justice Committee Contents

Written evidence from Jeni Styring, Children's Panel Solicitor (FC 23)



1.  I am a solicitor in private practice who has been undertaking family work since approximately 1985, mainly dealing with public law work ie applications for care orders and associated matters. I have been a member of the Children Panel since its inception. I have since then worked on a daily basis in the Family Courts.

2.  I propose to make brief submissions in relation to points (i) and (ii) in the call for evidence. Overall I want the committee to be aware of the experience of a solicitor using the family courts and the changes there have been over the years and current problems in the system.

3.  Regrettably these submissions are being prepared at speed because of the pressure of work that we are currently under. In addition the call for evidence and timescale was not unfortunately as well publicised as perhaps it should have been and many family solicitors are also preoccupied with the current problems in the Legal Aid Tender.

(i)  The effect of CAFCASS's operations on court proceedings, and the impact on the courts of the sponsorship of CAFCASS by the Department of Education

4.  I will deal with the first part of the question and in particular the involvement of CAFCASS in public law cases as this is the area with which I am most familiar.

5.  The dual system for representation of children by a solicitor and Children's Guardian was working extremely well. Originally the scheme was operated by local panels that had one or two administrators. As soon as a case was notified they would find a Guardian. Most of these were very experienced social workers and were self employed. There was no delay and because the courts appointed the solicitor and the panel the Guardian one found oneself working with many different Guardians. This meant that the two professionals could learn from each other and there were no "cosy relationships". As a solicitor in London I worked with maybe 20 or 30 different Guardians and was dealing with work from all over the capital.

6.  This allows for a very fruitful exchange of professional views and a melding of professional experience to ensure that all aspects are covered in the interests of the child.

7.  This system despite current difficulties should not be abandoned.

8.  Regrettably since CAFCASS took over from the previous arrangements the operation of the system has gradually got worse. This seemed to be initially and perhaps primarily because of increased bureaucracy, and the increase of unnecessary levels of administration and management. It is an unnecessarily "top heavy" organisation.

9.  Gradually the delays in appointment of a Guardian have increased so that as the child's solicitor you are left to handle the often sensitive and difficult initial stages of care proceedings without the benefit of the Guardian's advice.

10.  In the past most of the Guardians were self employed, very experienced social work practitioners, who were able to work efficiently and quickly home in on the issues but also who could understand the problems faced by the Local Authority because of their experience. This has changed so that now some employed CAFCASS Guardians do not have the same level of expertise.

11.  Regrettably the way CAFCASS has operated has led to many of the most experienced self employed professionals ceasing to work for CAFCSS for a number of reasons:

  • work was not being given to them;
  • bureaucratic attempts to limit or control the way they did their work in unreasonable ways; and
  • the insistence by management on what amounts to " box ticking" rather than looking at the quality of their work or the outcome for the child.
  • This increased it seems since OFSTED became involved.

12.  At present the situation is dire. In the last year the operation of the system has been chaotic. Because of the increase in care cases in most cases there has been no Guardian for several weeks or months which can seriously affect the outcome and progress of the case.

13.  For example, I have had a case where no Guardian was allocated from February until last week and it is coming up for final hearing at the end of the month. This is by no means a unique case.

14.  I have had other cases where a Guardian has been appointed late limiting the independent and investigative role they rightly need to take such that in one case for example because of pressure of work the Guardian supported the Local Authority position without even meeting the parents.

15.  In other cases the system where a duty advisor attends court but cannot continue on the case also causes problems, for example because they have done little more than skim through what may be extensive papers or where they have advised a course of action which the later appointed Guardian disagrees with.

16.  In addition over the past few months the system as to whether there is an adviser and their role appears to change from week to week and between various courts!

17.  The difficulties are compounded by the inexperience and turn over of social work staff at many local authorities. This causes delay both in bringing cases and once the cases are before the courts. The evidence may be vague or poorly presented, important documents missing. All this makes the role of the Guardian crucial to ensure that correct decisions are made for the child and at present the system is not delivering.

18.  As a child's solicitor with so many years experience I can do a lot but do not have the social work expertise to advise the court as to what is in the child's best interests.

19.  In the current constrained financial circumstances I cannot offer a solution save to ask that the bureaucracy and management is culled; weight is given to the views of experienced practitioners who are doing the work and if possible something like the "old" system is brought back which worked extremely well.

(ii)  The impact on court proceedings and access to justice of recent and proposed changes to legal aid

20.  Over the years since the Legal Aid Board gave way to the Legal Services Commission it seems as solicitors we have been embroiled in a battle just to try to continue to concentrate on doing quality work for the client, be they parent, child or relative.

21.  The idea (in the Access to Justice Act) to purport to make what can only be demand led into a procured service was doomed to fail and cause problems particularly in a time of financial constraints.

22.  I must have responded to maybe 15 consultations in the past 10 years. Whereas I understand the reason for fixed fees to supposedly save the administrative burden of assessing costs, I think they are intrinsically wrong particularly in care cases.

23.  I have never agreed that paying hourly rates encourages inefficiency. On the contrary paying a fixed fee either encourages the solicitor to take on too much work leaving them unable to give the case the attention it deserves or encourages them to employ less qualified staff which is also harmful to the case.

24.  In care matters you do not choose your cases. When acting for the child you are called by the court and have no idea what the case may entail. Similarly when acting for a parent although the way they come to you may be by recommendation or just walking in to your office..

25.  In my consultation response to the original proposals for fixed fees I stated:

We do not agree that fixed fees of any sort are the way forward in care proceedings. The nature of the issues is too variable and the importance and implications of the decisions too great to risk any reduction in the quality of service on offer.

26.  Fixed fees have of course come in and if the new contract goes ahead most of the last vestiges of hourly rates will also be gone.

27.  Solicitors are private businesses. Yet we have to take on cases not at the outset having any idea of the work which may be entailed. If the work exceeds the fixed fee then we have to do double the amount before we can "escape". At present the fixed fee for representing a parent in care proceedings is £3589. This means we would have to do £7178 worth of work before we could get any extra. Thus if the work up to £3589 is at an hourly rate of £70 per hour by the time one nears the escape one is being paid at £35 per hour! What business sense does that make?

28.  Because of the intense and complex nature of the work you cannot carry too many cases at one time. In addition because delays are caused by courts timetable, Local Authority inefficiencies; the lack of Guardians and unavailability of experts you also often have no control over the length of cases.

29.  On the other hand what sense does it make to pay such a large initial figure for a case which after a short while the Local Authority decides to withdraw?

30.  At the age of over 60 I am now working harder than I have ever done (maybe 70 hours a week) just to try to continue to do a proper and professional job for the clients in an efficient and cost effective way.

31.  We feel that our professional integrity has been impugned and we have not been listened to by the LSC. The bureaucracy again has intensified. For example we are supposed (although being paid by way of fixed fees) to keep a running computerised record of every telephone call and letter out and in (paid at the rates of £4.10 and £2.05) as well as rightly keeping full notes of all work undertaken on the file. Every certificate has a cost limit and we have to apply and justify any increase. There are different rates for different stages of work.

32.  We feel that over the years our views have been disregarded and our dedication and professionalism taken advantage of. This has caused many to become demoralised and want to give up. All of this has caused suppliers to leave the system.

33.  The supplier base had already reduced and with the proposed cull of family firms from 2400 to 1300 the pressure of work will only increase.

34.  We are dealing with people who are vulnerable and need sensitive professional help. We also need to be able to train and bring in new blood to the profession.

35.  The impact on the courts and the family justice system is only too obvious.

36.  In private law cases already there are many litigants in person causing difficulties and delays for the courts. In the most intractable cases the courts continue to make use of their powers under Rule 9.5 to make the child a party and appoint a Guardian ad litem to represent their interests to ensure that at least there is one representative to help take the matter forward.

37.  We are very concerned that the reduction in suppliers and increased pressures will lead to further delays in the courts. Unrepresented litigants are also less likely to compromise which could lead to longer hearings and yet more pressure on the courts.

September 2010

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