The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Kinship Care has launched an inquiry into access to legal aid for kinship carers and potential kinship carers.
Currently, grandparents, brothers, sisters and other relatives or friends are not able to access free, independent legal advice and representation when considering taking on the care of a child who cannot safely remain with their parents.
According to the group, some of those who pursue a kinship care order end up incurring "substantial debt" due to legal fees.
Research published in 2020 by the Parliamentary Taskforce on Kinship Care found that three-quarters of kinship carers feel they do not have enough information about legal options to make an informed decision when taking on care of their kinship child.
The research also found that nearly one in three kinship carers (30%) felt that their kinship child was not subject to the right legal order for their needs. Of those that incurred legal costs (58%), 4 in 10 received no financial help.
The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 removed virtually all private family law issues from the scope of legal aid.
In public law care proceedings, if a kinship career is joined as a party to proceedings, they can apply for legal aid to be represented in the proceedings. However, many kinship carers are not parties to the proceedings, or do not have access to early legal advice to know that this is an option, the APPG said. Children's services departments may make some funding available for prospective kinship carers to obtain legal advice, but this varies and is most often limited, 'one-off' advice.
In February 2019, the Ministry of Justice published its Legal Support Action Plan in which it committed to extending the scope of legal aid to cover special guardianship orders (SGOs) in private law – by Autumn 2019. This proposed action has not yet been implemented.
The pandemic has since had a "huge" impact and pressure on the Family Court has never been greater, the parliamentary group said.
The average time for a care proceedings case to conclude is currently 45 weeks, which is the highest since 2012, and beyond the 26-week time limit. As well as the impact of Covid-19, the scenario of an unrepresented carer arising late in the day is also a common reason for delays, the group added.
Andrew Gwynne MP, Chair of the APPG and a special guardian, said: “Kinship carers are being asked to step in to avoid a child from remaining in, or entering into, the care system. By doing so they are providing a safe and loving home for a child in their family network.
“Yet they are often then left having to navigate a complex legal system and make huge decisions for their family without access to free, independent legal advice. Many end up in substantial debt as a result. And almost a third feel they do not have the right legal order for their child which has a significant impact on the support they can then access."
He added: “The Ministry of Justice made some welcome commitments in 2019 but three years on progress has stalled. Our APPG’s inquiry will be examining this issue further, including the impact on families and the wider children’s social care and family justice system.”