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

Part of Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:00 pm ar 12 Ionawr 2017.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families) 2:00, 12 Ionawr 2017

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.