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Parliamentary inquiry to examine access to legal support for kinship carers

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Kinship Care has launched an inquiry into access to legal aid for kinship carers and potential kinship carers.

Currently, many 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.

Research published in 2020 by the Parliamentary Taskforce on Kinship Care found that:

• Three quarters of kinship carers feel they don't have enough information about legal options to make an informed decision when taking on care of their kinship child.

• Nearly one in three kinship carers (30 per cent) felt that their kinship child was not subject to the right legal order for their needs.

• 58 per cent incurred legal costs and four in ten of those received no financial help with this.

• Many carers accrue substantial private debt in order to secure a legal order for a child and give them a safe home.

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 carer 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. Children's services departments may make some funding available for prospective kinship carers to obtain legal advice but this varies and is most often very limited, 'one-off' advice.

In February 2019, the Ministry of Justice committed to extend the scope of legal aid to cover special guardianship orders (SGOs) in private law – by Autumn 2019. The APPG notes that almost three years have now passed and this commitment is yet to be delivered.

The pandemic has since had a huge impact and pressure on the Family Court has never been greater. The average time for a care proceedings case to conclude is currently 45 weeks – the highest since 2012, and far 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.

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.

"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."

The inquiry will be seeking oral and written evidence from kinship carers, legal practitioners and others.

For more information, click here.