Understanding the care proceedings process
If a Local Authority has reason to believe that a child, or children, has suffered harm or at risk of doing so, they will begin what is known as Care Proceedings. This involves the Local Authority asking the Court to take a closer look at the situation and investigating what family life is like for the child, so that they can decide if the Local Authority should be granted a legal order that will allow them to intervene and ensure that any children are kept safe from and form of harm.
Care proceedings and access to legal aid
If the Local Authority decide that issuing Care Proceedings is the best course of action to protect the children involved, the parent or guardians of the children will be entitled to non-means legal aid, provided they have parental responsibility. This means that they are eligible for legal aid, regardless of their income. In a Care Proceedings case, legal aid is also non-merits assessed, which means that any prospects of success are not considered in the claim.
Put simply, once Care Proceedings are underway, legal aid for the responsible parent or guardian becomes automatic.
Things are different if the children involved are being cared for by a respondent or intervener without parental responsibility, such as a grandparent or other relative that’s looking after the child without parental responsibility. In these circumstances, legal aid will be subject to a means and merits assessment.
A means and merits assessment for legal aid involves the Legal Aid Agency considering the respondent’s income and prospects of success. Therefore, legal aid in these cases is not guaranteed or automatic. Should legal aid be granted, it will be subject to a review if circumstances were to change, whether that be a change to finances or the prospects success, so a respondent’s legal aid could potentially be withdrawn.
The start of Care Proceedings
At the start of Care Proceedings, the involved children are initially assigned a Social Worker. There are many different reasons as to why children may be referred to Social Care Services, including abuse, family dysfunction, neglect, disability, or illness. Several sources can make a referral to the Social Care Services, including the police, schools, or health services.
Should Children’s Services believe that there is an imminent risk to a child, Court proceedings would begin immediately. Although, in most cases Children’s Services make every attempt to with the family to avoid things have to escalate into the Court system.
When Children’s Services receive information that causes concern, they would typically work through a series of steps before issuing Court Proceedings. This series of steps is known as the Public Law Outline Process (PLO Process).
The PLO Process
Should a Local Authority wish to initiate the PLO Process, they will first provide the children’s parents with a formal letter. The letter outlines the main concerns that have been raised and the help that the Children’s Services have provided to date. There will be a schedule for meetings with various authorities for the parents to attend. Attendance at the PLO meeting will include the Local Authority’s solicitor, Team Manager, Social Worker, and the parents as well as their legal representatives.
The Team Manager will explain why the PLO Process has begun and what support is possible through the Social Services.
The Social Services will highlight the concerns that were raised in the letter to the parents and update them on what has been happening so far and the parents will have an opportunity to respond.
In most cases, Social Services will also ask the parents to sign a “Written Agreement” document. This document will outline what is expected of the parents as highlight what everyone involved agrees to do, including the Social Services. The written agreement isn’t legally binding, but if the agreement was to be breached the Local Authority would likely seek to escalate matters further.
Social Care has a responsibility to provide parents with relevant support throughout the process. Matters will be reviewed during a meeting that is scheduled for a later date before a decision is made as to whether the PLO Process needs to continue.
Read: Family law explained
The Care Proceedings Process
If the Children’s Services have reason to believe that any involved children are in immediate danger, they can request for the family court to make a temporary court order at the very start of care proceedings, known as an “interim care order”. If the court grants the request, the council can temporarily take the children into care for a total of up to 8 weeks initially. A court can take up to 26 weeks before deciding what should happen with the child, while more complex cases can take even longer.
During this period of time a social worker, officer from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) and other family professionals will be working together in an attempt to better understand the exact reasons why the children involved may be at risk. They will also discuss things that can be done to ensure their safety.
Discussions will be held with the parents or guardians of the children, and they may choose to speak with other family members or friends in regard to caring for the children in the meantime if they cannot live safe and well protected at home. The parents will receive any necessary support.
A report will then be written by the social worker and Cafcass officer that will be submitted to the court. This report will outline what they believe should happen to the involved children. This may involve recommendations that the children should be taken into care or stay with family members or friends. Once all relevant information has been gathered, the next step will be an official court hearing.
The court hearing
During the court hearing, the judge will read through the reports and give everyone involved in the case an opportunity to voice their points related to the case. The people who may have an opportunity to speak include:
- The children involved in the case
- The parents of the children
- Representative solicitors for the parents and the children
- Social worker
- Cafcass officer
If the judge deems the family home to be a safe environment, the children will be returned to the home. If the judge feels the family home isn’t a safe place for the children, they will arrange the finding of a new home with a “Child Arrangement Order” that will allow the parents to still see their children.
The judge may decide that the children should be rehomed with:
- Other family members
- Trusted friends of the family
- A new family
- A dedicated children’s home
- A foster care home
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