A Breathtaking Risk
I have often complained (most recently only yesterday - I'm sure I'm not alone) about the irony that on the one hand the Government tells us (in Section 1 of the Children Act) that "in any proceedings in which any question with respect to the upbringing of a child arises, the court shall have regard to the general principle that any delay in determining the question is likely to prejudice the welfare of the child", and on the other hand, the Government fails to give sufficient resources to the courts or CAFCASS, with the result that children proceedings are subjected to huge delays. The subject of Government funding has been taken up by Alistair MacDonald, Co-Chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children, in his Opening Address to the Annual Conference of the Association:
...what can rightly be said about the reforms to family legal aid proposed by the Government and the wider chronic under-resourcing of the family justice system, what can rightly be said to be common ground amongst many eminent individuals and organisations whose opinions deservedly command respect, is that those reforms constitute an unprecedented threat to access to justice for vulnerable children and families in this jurisdiction.On the legal aid reforms he said:
We have sought to make clear to the Ministry of Justice that the new Public Law Outline and the revised Children Act Guidance are designed to be implemented and operated by specialist legal practitioners; that those twin reforms can only be effective in reducing delay and improving outcomes for children if a sufficient and sustainable supplier base of such specialist legal practitioners is maintained. We have repeatedly highlighted that the Constitutional Affairs Committee has recognised, having heard evidence from all interested stakeholders from the senior judiciary to children's charities, that the proposed reforms to legal aid constitute a "breathtaking risk."So, is Section 1 of the Children Act (which also of course states that "the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration") effectively no more than hot air, just another example of government spin? Is it really the case that the Government is more interested in hard economics than the welfare of children? The Government will, of course, continue to demand more efficiency, but MacDonald responds that "there is a level of chronic under-investment below which even the most efficient use of existing assets cannot mitigate the impact of that chronic under-investment". When that level is reached, the system will break down - a consequence MacDonald fears will surely happen if the Government continues on its present path.