Crack childcare teams face axe

TEAMS of specialist local authority lawyers who deal with childcare cases face being disbanded under council reforms.

The units – which sprung out of recommendations from the Butler Sloss inquiry into alleged child abuse in Cleveland – could disappear along with the county councils which established them.

Staff would either join one of the unitary authorities taking over the county councils' workload or lose their jobs altogether.

Members of childcare units at Cleveland itself, Avon and at Humberside, are concerned about their future and how the often sensitive work will be handled if they are disbanded.

They are trying to persuade the unitary council chiefs to leave the squads unchanged or set up similar operations when the county councils disappear next April.

Childcare lawyers say the teams have developed a level of expertise which could not be matched by smaller, separate, non-specialist lawyers working for the unitaries.

Although no decisions have been made on the teams, and there is widespread sympathy for the idea of joint units, some councils have indicated that they would prefer to have their own separate staff.

Ronald Hinchcliffe, county solicitor and acting secretary at Cleveland, said his nine-strong childcare unit attended court 1,200 times and handled 1,100 case conferences last year.

He said: “Unless the councils make some provision for a joint arrangement then each will have to provide its own legal staff to undertake childcare work. This just would not work.

“You must have a staff of solicitors who are trained and who are very familiar with childcare matters.”

For Avon, the Bristol-based team consists of 20 people, including 11 solicitors and a barrister, Teresa Thornhill. Staff have been vigorously campaigning to persuade the new authorities to keep a county-wide team.

Kate Berry, co-head of the section, said: “We have a very comprehensive team here which has grown up with the Children's Act. If the team was split up, there wouldn't be the same level of expertise.”

A spokesman for Humberside said: “We have a very successful legal childcare team here and there will be concern about its future until a decision is made.”