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 Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education) 2:00, 12 Ionawr 2017

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.