Digital record keeping has removed the possibility of turning up at court only to find that you have previously cross-examined your client. These days, family law practitioners have the words ‘watch out for conflicts of interest’ printed into their DNA.
However, in this blog, I wish to examine another, rarely addressed conflict; one apparently under-researched, often overlooked and when perceived, dismissed as an unavoidable aspect of our family court system.
The British Association of Social Workers ‘Code of Ethics’ first mentions the words ‘conflict of interest’ in the penultimate line of code 2.3(4). Yet to its credit, at code 2.2(4) we find the words,
“Challenging unjust policies and practices. Social workers have a duty to bring to the attention of their employers, policy makers, politicians and the general public situations where resources are inadequate or where distribution of resources, policies and practice are oppressive, unfair, harmful or illegal“.
In times of financial constraints, local authority social service directors find themselves with ever-diminishing budgets to service ever-increasing workloads. But how do they balance the potential conflicts of interest?
In 2017, the number of care applications reached record levels, and children looked after in the care system was at its highest since 1989. Currently there are about 73,000 children in the care system, up from 60,000 in 2007. Local authorities are simply struggling to keep pace financially.
According to the Care Crisis review, “Many professionals described the frustration they feel at working in a sector that is overstretched and overwhelmed and in which, too often, children and families do not get the direct help they need early enough to prevent difficulties escalating.”….“There was a palpable sense of unease about how lack of resources, poverty and deprivation are making it harder for families and the system to cope.”
Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division added in July 2018, “It may properly be said that we have reached a stage where the threshold for obtaining a public law court order is noticeably low, whereas, no doubt as a result of the current financial climate, the threshold for a family being able to access specialist support services in the community is conversely, very high.”
My recent experience suggests that social services managers are determining choices on the basis of cost – rather than need. This may be inevitable with a finite budget, but does it not call into question whether those with financial interests should be calling the shots?
In a previous blog, I have discussed the idea of removing applicant-status from local authorities to a conceptual ‘Office of the Children’s Guardian’ (OCG). Under that proposal, where social service departments considered a need for public law intervention, they would refer the matter to the independent OCG, which would review the case and where appropriate, take and fund action.
It would follow, instead of disparate local authorities setting different standards of intervention, that public law decisions would be taken (and funded) on a national basis according to national guidelines. Local officers would still bear responsibility for delivery and implementation, but the conflict of cash v action would be removed from their local shoulders.
At times, described by Sir Andrew McFarlane as “untenable”, radical action is needed. Perhaps here is a kernel of a radical answer?