Local authority child care lawyers are being overwhelmed by the rise in care proceedings and a crisis could be looming. Graham Cole calls for more to be done on staff well-being.
The last few years have seen a significant increase in the numbers of care proceedings, placing considerable pressures on all those involved. This has been particularly true for local authority child care lawyers who shoulder much of the responsibility for the management and progress of such cases and who are increasingly on the receiving end of criticism when things go wrong.
The challenge has not only been to deal with the rising numbers of cases, but their increasing complexity and the need to meet the 26-week deadline imposed by the Children and Families Act 2014. Coupled with this have been the increasing demands made by courts and other parties for disclosure, further and longer periods of assessment, the instruction of additional experts, the encouragement of a ‘blame culture’ and the threat of costs orders if court timetables are not met.
All these pressures fall heavily upon local authority child care lawyers who are also battling with declining resources within their authorities and in some cases, poorer terms and conditions of employment.
Local authority child care lawyers have shown great resilience in coping with these pressures and rising to the enormous challenges posed by the rise in care cases and what appears to be increasing levels of, and risks of, harm posed to children. The rising tide of litigation has required knowledge of forms of abuse which did not feature on the radar when many of us starting working in this area of law. Radicalisation, female genital mutilation and forced marriage are just several examples.
There is a much higher level of ‘satellite’ litigation, for example surrounding publicity, injunctive relief and deprivation of liberty. Whilst we have sought to absorb these additional challenges, there is only so much that we can take.
Many local authorities are reporting increasing difficulties in recruiting child care lawyers and the pressures and demands, the threat of being ‘named and shamed’ if things go wrong and the reports of ‘burn out’ and stress amongst existing staff are contributing to a sense of crisis.
We are hearing a lot about wellbeing, both in the workplace and in society in general. I am hearing too many reports about local authority child care lawyers suffering stress, anxiety and burn out. One lawyer has bravely spoken in his blog about the challenges he has faced to his mental health and I have heard other accounts which indicate that his is not an isolated experience. We simply cannot have local authority child care lawyers working all hours to prop up a creaking system and keep cases on track.
It is time for local authorities to examine closely the situation regarding its child care legal staff. Without a strategy to encourage recruitment and make the job more attractive, a recruitment crisis could be looming in the years ahead as experienced staff either retire or decide that they have had enough. They also urgently need to consider measures to aid staff wellbeing, an issue which has been taken up by the new President of the Law Society in relation to the solicitors profession in general.
She has rightly indicated that there is no panacea but action is needed now. The warning signs are there and need to be heeded.
I acknowledge that this article may be seen as special pleading and I recognise that many other professionals within the child protection system are also under pressure and that the system itself is under huge strain. However, this is high -profile and important work and the consequences of getting it wrong are serious, most of all for the vulnerable children whom we are all seeking to protect.
Graham Cole is a solicitor at Luton Borough Council and Special Activity Area (SAA) Lead for Children’s Services for Lawyers in Local Government
This article was first published in the December 2018 edition of Local Government Lawyer Insight, which can be accessed at http://www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/insight
Insight is published four times a year and is circulated free-of-charge to all Local Government Lawyer newsletter subscribers (click here to subscribe) in electronic format. A single hard copy is also circulated to all local authority legal departments in England and Wales.
Also in this issue:
Sands of time
Interview: Suki Binjal
Time to shine
Through the looking glass
Spotlight: Child Protection