Inquiry launched as kinship carers face ‘substantial’ debt when securing legal orders

A parliamentary group for kinship care has launched an inquiry into the effects of cuts to legal aid as an extension to some Special Guardians is still yet to be implemented, three years after the Ministry of Justice committed to do so.

02/02/22

Inquiry launched as kinship carers face ‘substantial’ debt when securing legal orders

The effects of cuts in legal aid for kinship care are to be investigated by the UK parliament.

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Kinship Care announced its inquiry at the end of January. It will look at access to legal aid for kinship carers and potential kinship carers. Kinship carers are family members who care for children from their families, who cannot live with their parents.

The inquiry aims to bring a renewed focus on the issues kinship carers and potential kinship carers face in accessing legal advice and representation, and the wider impact this has on the child welfare and family justice system. It will also update the evidence base on access to Legal Aid from carers and practitioners, and inform the Ministry of Justice in their COVID-19 recovery work.

The inquiry follows on from a report published in 2020 by the Parliamentary Taskforce on Kinship Care. This said that kinship carers needed legal advice and representation from the start of their cases, but that cuts to Legal Aid since 2012 had removed access to specialist support from nearly all private family law cases.

The parliamentary kinship group, chaired by Andrew Gwynne MP, wants contributions from people and organisations with experience and knowledge of kinship and the family justice system.

Launching the inquiry, Mr Gwynne said kinship carers are being asked to step in to avoid a child from remaining in, or entering into, the care system.

“Three years have passed since the Ministry of Justice made a commitment to extend legal aid to some Special Guardians and that welcome but limited step hasn’t yet been implemented.

“The number of children in the care system has continued to rise and the pandemic has put even greater strains on the Family Court. Our inquiry intends to shine a spotlight specifically on this issue and push it back up the agenda.

“We will build on the Taskforce’s earlier findings and hear directly from kinship carers and practitioners on their experience of these issues. We will be holding oral evidence sessions and taking written evidence over the next two months and aim to publish a report later in the Spring.”

Lisa Watch of the charity Kinship, which supports and advises families said it costs on average over £5400 to get through the legal processes. Often, people receive no support and so Legal Aid being denied means that carers can be cut out off from legal advice.

“Some local authorities offer support but others offer nothing,” Watch said.

“The Ministry of Justice plans to introduce Legal Aid for those with special guardianship but currently we have no idea of the time frame for that.

“The key issue is that the Ministry must expedite its plans and go further to provide support. Hopefully this enquiry will help it. We will be submitting evidence.”

The Family Rights Group (FRG), which will analyse evidence presented to the enquiry, currently provides free specialist legal and child welfare practice advice for parents and kinship carers. However, the group says on its website that it can currently only help only 1 in 3 people.

The FRG adds that the delay in implementing the Ministry of Justice commitment comes at a time when pressure on the Family Court has never been greater. The average time for a care proceedings case to conclude is currently 45 weeks – the highest since 2012, and far beyond the 26-week time limit.

“The pandemic has had a huge impact on the capacity of the courts. The scenario of an unrepresented carer arising late in the day is also a common reason for delays.

“In public law care proceedings, if a kinship carer is joined as a party to the proceedings, they can apply for Legal Aid to be represented in the proceedings. However, many kinship carers are not parties to proceedings, or do not have access to early legal advice to know that this is an option.”

For more information or to submit evidence to the enquiry, please contact Jordan Hall jhall@frg.org.uk

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