Legal aid for parents who are care leavers: children in voluntary accommodation and to be placed in a foster for adoption placement

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 am on 12 January 2017.

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‘After regulation 5(1)(e) of the Civil Legal Aid (Financial Resources and Payment for Services) Regulations 2013, insert—

“(ea) family help (lower) in any matter described in paragraph 1(1)(b) (care, supervision and protection of children) or paragraph 1(1)(i) (placement orders, recovery orders or adoption orders) of Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the Act to the extent that the matter concerns a placement to be made or contemplated to be made under section 22C(9B)(c) of the Children Act 1989 (placement with a local authority foster parent who has been approved as a prospective adopter), where the child is being accommodated under section 20 of that Act, and the individual to whom the family help (lower) may be provided is—

(i) the parent of a child, or the person with parental responsibility for a child within the meaning of the Children Act 1989 in respect of whom a local authority has given notice of a placement or contemplated placement under s22C subsection (9B)(c) of that Act and is themselves a looked after child or a care leaver, or

(ii) in the case of an unborn child in respect of whom a local authority has given notice of a placement or contemplated placement under section 22C(9B)(c) of the Children Act 1989, the person who, following the birth of the child—

(a) is a looked after child or a care leaver,

(b) will be the parent of the child, and

(c) will have parental responsibility for the child within the meaning of the Children Act 1989.”’—(Mrs Lewell-Buck.)

This new clause would allow access to free, independent legal advice for parents, who are themselves a looked after child or care leaver, and whose children are in voluntary placement and are to be placed in a foster for adoption placement.

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 25—Legal aid for parents who are care leavers: children subject to a placement order application—

‘After regulation 5(1)(d) of the Civil Legal Aid (Financial Resources and Payment for Services) Regulations 2013, insert—

“(da) legal representation in proceedings for a placement order under Chapter 3 of Part 1 of the 2002 Act where the individual to whom legal representation may be provided is—

(i) the parent of a child or a person with parental responsibility for the child within the meaning of the Children Act 1989,

(ii) is themselves a looked after child or care leaver, and

(iii) would not otherwise be entitled to legal representation under paragraphs (c) or (d) of this regulation.”’

This new clause would ensure access to free, independent legal advice and representation for parents, who are themselves a looked after child or care leaver, and whose children are subject to a placement order application (permission to place a child for adoption).

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

As we have discussed previously in Committee in relation to my proposed amendments to clause 3, care leavers are particularly vulnerable to early pregnancy and to losing a child to the care system or adoption. That, on top of the feelings that many new parents have, brings additional challenges.

Under the Children and Families Act 2014, babies and children who are looked after, either under a care order or by way of a voluntary agreement under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 with the child’s parents, can be placed under foster for adoption with potential adopters who are approved as foster carers. That was a welcome move, but as with many legislative changes, some of the consequences and pitfalls of the legislation were not known until it became embedded. We now have a situation whereby a child who is looked after under section 20 may be placed in a foster for adoption placement without their young parents having had a right to free independent legal advice and representation, and without any court scrutiny of the process or any court decision that the child should be permanently removed from their parents. Once a child is living with a potential adopter, it is much harder for the parent to persuade the court that the child should be returned to their care, because of the status quo argument, which is aimed at minimising disruption for the child.

New clause 24 would deal with that injustice. It would ensure that where a parent was in care themselves or a care leaver and a foster for adoption placement was proposed for their child who was voluntary accommodated, that parent would be entitled to non-means-tested and non-merits-tested public funding. That would be entirely consistent with what is available to persons with parental responsibility during the pre-proceedings process.

There are also a small number of cases in which parents are not entitled to non-means and merits-tested legal aid when the court is deciding, following an application from the local authority, whether to make a placement order for a child. A placement order permits the local authority to place the child for adoption. In such circumstances, the local authority and the child will have a legal representative at court, but the parents may not, because there have been no earlier care proceedings—for example, where a voluntarily accommodated child has been in a foster for adoption placement, because in that situation a young parent may have had no legal aid—or because care proceedings have concluded and a placement order application is subsequently made.

Young parents who are themselves in care or care leavers are at particular risk of that injustice. The Centre for Social Justice reported in 2015 that 22% of female care leavers become teenage mothers—that is three times the national average—and that one in 10 care leavers aged 16 to 21 have had a child taken into care.

Sir James Munby, president of the family division, has cited the observation of Mr Justice Baker:

“The justification for automatic public funding in care proceedings is the draconian nature of the order being claimed by the local authority.”

Given that a placement order is equally if not more draconian, the same rationale should apply.

New clause 25 would close the loophole and give parents legal advice and representation when the state is proposing to remove their child or children from their care. Surely the Minister can see that, as things stand, there is the potential for miscarriages of justice, and that miscarriages of justice are taking place.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

I thank the hon. Lady for tabling new clauses 24 and 25. They seek to extend access to free legal aid to parents who are themselves looked-after children or care leavers and whose children have been voluntarily accommodated under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 and are to be placed in a foster for adoption placement or are subject to a placement order application. A long-established view enshrined in law is that children are best looked after within their family unless intervention in that family’s life is necessary. Indeed, that is one of the fundamental principles of the 1989 Act.

When children are looked after, provisions in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 that came into force in April 2016 mean that legal aid is available to parents in specified public law family proceedings. That includes legal services relating to care orders, as well as placement and adoption orders, and incorporates advice in relation to orders that are contemplated.

A local authority cannot accommodate a child voluntarily under section 20 without parental consent, and in such circumstances the parents may remove them from the local authority accommodation at any time. However, when the local authority considers that the child is at risk and that it would be in their best interest to remain looked after, it may apply for a care order. When a local authority informs parents of the intention to initiate care proceedings, those parents, including those who are looked after or are care leavers, become eligible for civil legal services free of any means test in the usual way.

However, I understand the concerns that have been raised about the application of fostering for adoption to voluntarily accommodated children. When a local authority starts to consider adoption as an option for a child, the adoption agencies regulations already require the local authority to provide a counselling service for the child’s parent or guardian, including explaining to them the procedure and legal implications of adoption. They also require the local authority to notify the child’s birth parents in writing that it has decided to place the child in a fostering-for-adoption placement before the local authority’s nominated officer can approve the placement. Those provisions apply to all parents, including those who are looked after or are care leavers.

In relation to care leavers and placement order applications, we are not aware of any care leaver who has been refused free legal aid to challenge an application for a placement order. If the hon. Lady has examples or has been made aware of cases where that has happened, it would be helpful if she shared them with us to that we can investigate them.

When a local authority applies for a placement order outside care proceedings, the vast majority of care leavers will be entitled to free means-tested legal aid, as they are likely to meet the criteria. However, in the light of the points raised by the hon. Lady and, I believe, the Family Rights Group as part of this debate, I have asked my officials to talk to their counterparts at the Ministry of Justice, which holds responsibility for the legal aid budget, to see whether there are any gaps that need to be addressed. I hope that on that basis, the hon. Lady will withdraw the motion.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 27