Council cuts spark child care concerns

Helen Sage reports

TEAMS of specialist local authority lawyers who deal with child care work will be disbanded under new council reforms, giving rise to concern over the provision of child care services.

The units, which were set up in 1989 after alleged child abuse in Cleveland, will cease to exist from the end of March when Cleveland, Humberside and Avon county councils are each divided up into unitary bodies.

Child care solicitors will join one of the new unitary authorities taking over the county council's workload.

In Cleveland there will be on average one child care solicitor in each of the four unitary authorities: Hartlepool, Middlesborough, Redcar and Stockton. Until now the child care unit has comprised three full-time solicitors, one part-time solicitor and three legal executives.

Ronald Hinchcliffe, county solicitor with overall responsibility for the provision of social services and education, said: "The fragmentation of the child care unit can only be harmful to the provision of services.

"With only one solicitor on hand to deal with child care matters there is bound to be a clash of interests as the solicitor will also be responsible for other areas such as the elderly and the disabled."

He is concerned the new arrangements will not meet with Law Society standards on the provision of child care which currently only cover private practice.

Jane Leigh, secretary of the family law committee at the Law Society, said: "It is not clear how the new arrangements will work but it would be of concern to us if the services suffered as a result of an inadequate supply of specialist child care solicitors."

Ron Lamb, currently a legal executive in the Cleveland child care unit, commented: "With only one child care solicitor in each authority there will not be sufficient back-up for cases. With child care cases there always has to be someone available to go to case conference meetings which require next-day attendance."

In Avon the new arrangements are not causing as much concern. Three of the new unitaries will have two solicitors each and Bristol will retain seven solicitors from the original child care team. The legal teams have been working under the new unitary arrangements since November 1995.

Kate Berry, head of the court team in Avon, said: "It's a common experience that nobody knows what is going to happen in the new authorities. The Bristol team will probably be able to work in the same way as before but North Somerset, Bristol and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire will now have to prioritise their work in a different way."