When it comes to the welfare of your children you need the best expert advice you can get to assist you. The advice you need should be pertinent to the issues and focused on achieving the best outcome for you and your family. We represent parents, grandparents and children and others in all areas of children’s law and specialise in proceedings involving Social Services. It is always extremely worrying when a Social Worker tells you they are worried about your child, or there are issues raised of neglect or abuse. At that time you need expert sensible advice. We are known for our commitment to our clients, and for never losing sight of what is important to them. We are there to help you through the process.
Our experienced team is acknowledged as amongst the leaders in the field and we have dealt with a wide range of cases including non-accidental injury, sexual abuse, radicalisation, issues of substance misuse, factitious illness and neglect. With our knowledge of international law we are known as one of the few teams who are able to deal with complex cases involving not just child protection but also jurisdictional issues. We are known for our advocacy and have experience at representing clients at every level of Court. Our team have successfully represented our clients in a wide range of cases, and are rarely if ever daunted.
The quality of legal advice provided by Freemans is always to a high standard as recognised within the legal community and amongst our clients.
We have set out below a number of frequently asked questions which hope will can assist you. Please use this form if we can assist you further.
Why does the social worker wish to speak to me about my child?
It is not always immediately clear why a Social Worker may wish to speak to you. They have a legal obligation to follow up allegations made involving a child, whether it is from a professional, (for example a teacher or a doctor) or from a family member or even a member of the public. They may wish to speak to you on the telephone or in person. The allegations or concerns may be various, and may also involve issues you yourself have worries about. Once you are aware of the nature of the concern or allegation then you can decide whether it is something you need help with. It is then important to turn to lawyers who specialise in this field as it is a complex area of law.
I have been invited to a meeting with the social worker, what do I do?
Find out what the nature of the meeting is by asking the social worker what it is for- then ask if they think you need a lawyer to come with you. Irrespective of the answer it is sensible to get legal advice at that stage. You can then receive support and advice to assist you in engaging with the Local Authority appropriately for your situation. Often these meetings will be part of an assessment or investigation, it is probably important therefore to attend as you may need to ensure that your position is understood.
Can Social Services take my child?
The simple answer is “not without Court proceedings” – unless you agree to your child going into care (under section 20 of the Children Act 1989– see below). However if the Police are involved, and the Police constable “has reasonable cause to believe” that your child might suffer significant harm if not removed, then the Police may remove your child to a place of safety for up to 72 hours. If after that time the Police or Local Authority consider it is not safe to return your child either can apply to the Court for an “Emergency Protection Order” that can last up to 8 days. If no application is made to the Court then your child must be returned to you unless you agree otherwise.
Social Services say they are investigating, what does that mean?
After an initial assessment social services may close your case or decide to investigate further using a procedure known as a section 47 investigation. This should include interviews with all those involved with your child, as well as your child’s doctor and school. At the conclusion a report is prepared and either the case concludes or if it is thought a plan to protect your child is required a child protection conference may be arranged. This will involve you and others involved with your child. Often the police will attend as well. The meeting is chaired by an independent chair and if thought necessary at the end a child protection plan is put in place. Alternatively a child in need plan could be implemented. Special permission is required for your solicitor to attend a child protection conference.
I have received a letter asking me to bring a solicitor to a meeting- what do I do next?
Such a letter needs to be taken seriously as that is an indication that Social Services are considering taking protective measures which may result in Court proceedings involving your child. You should take a Solicitor with you. It is sensible to get in touch with a solicitor in advance of the meeting so that your lawyer knows your case and can advise you as well as represent you properly and effectively at the meeting. Often the social worker will be hoping to agree a plan that will avoid proceedings. This could include the instruction of experts such as psychiatrists and psychologists. Your solicitor will have input into the expert and questions that are asked.
I have been asked to agree to my child being in foster care what should I do?
Agreeing for your child to be in foster care is a serious step and you should seek legal advice. You will usually be asked to sign a section 20 agreement which is a contract with Social Services in which you delegate some parental responsibility temporarily to the Local Authority so they can look after your child in foster care without a Court Order. It is not supposed to be a permanent or even long term agreement. If it any stage you are not happy with your child remaining in Local Authority care, you can withdraw your agreement. In that situation the Local Authority either have to return your child to or issue an application to Court.
Social Services are taking me to Court, what Orders can they apply for?
There are a number of different orders. It is essential that if an application is made you are legally represented by a lawyer who is an expert in the field. The Local Authority is supposed to hand out a list of Solicitors who specialise in this field, however you do not need to confine yourself to that list. Firms that specialise in representing parents and others in care proceedings will usually have at least one lawyer in the firm who is on the Law Society Children Panel. The potential orders are as follows
- An Emergency Protection Order
An Emergency Protection Order is applied for when Social Services claim that a child is at immediate risk of harm. It is usually issued at short notice and can only last a short time (maximum period 8 days) but if granted it effectively gives the Local Authority parental responsibility and enables them to remove the child from their parents for the duration. Whilst it is on force Social Services may decide to apply for a Care or supervision Order.
- Care Orders and Interim Care Orders
An application for a Care order is made when the Local Authority seek a longer term solution for the concerns they may have about your child. A Care order gives the Local Authority parental responsibility and lasts up until a child is 18 if not discharged earlier.
When the application is first made Social Services my seek a short term “interim” Care order if they consider that there is a serious and immediate risk to your child that can only be met by your child being in foster care. This is quite a high test in law and the Local Authority must prove that the threshold is crossed. The law in this regard is complex and the Local Authority have to prove that the risk is above a certain threshold and is as a result of the care recieved.
If an Interim Care Order is made, this can last for the duration of the proceedings or it may be discharged part way through. In some circumstances, an application for an Interim Care Order may not be made at the start of proceedings but the final order may be a full Care Order. When either Care Order is in place, the Local Authority share parental responsibility with the parents of the child and any other holders of parental responsibility.
- Supervision Order and Interim Supervision Order.
A Supervision Order is a less draconian order than a care order.Under a Supervision Order, the Local Authority have to advise, befriend and assist the child.The Local Authority will not share parental responsibility with the parents or parental responsibility holders of a child. It will mean that there will be frequent visits (announced and unannounced) by social services and the family are expected to engage and work with social services and other experts.
- Secure Accommodation Order
In circumstances where the child is at risk to themselves or other or are placing themselves at risk the Local Authority may apply for an Order to place the child in secure accommodation. This often means that the child will be placed in a secure accommodation unit many miles from home. This type of order is reviewed on a regular basis as the circumstances that present themselves when the immediate application is made may also change.
- Special Guardianship Order
A Special Guardianship Order is used when children are placed with family members (or similar). This Order means that the holder has elevated parental responsibility so that not only does the Special Guardian have parental responsibility but they can make decisions over and above that of the parents. The Special Guardian can access a support package from the Local Authority which can provide financial support to assist with child care.
How do I have my say in the Court proceedings?
As a parent in these proceedings you are entitled to have your say and to be legally represented with your fees being met by the State under the Legal Aid scheme irrelevant of your financial circumstances.
What is a guardian and what is their role?
When care proceedings are issued, the child or children involved are always represented by an independent person known as a Guardian (employed by an agency known as Cafcass). They will instruct a lawyer for the child and the two professionals will work together to make sure that an independent voice focusing on the welfare needs of the child will be heard. The guardian usually has a social work background and the solicitor is usually a member of the Law society children Panel. Guardians will usually investigate and provide an analysis for the Court, which the Courts need to take seriously.
How long should the Court process take?
The Court process should take no more than 26 weeks. In some circumstances, the Court process concludes a lot quicker than this however when there is a complicated background to your case or there is lots of experts assessment required, then cases can take longer. In very complex cases concerning non-accidental injuries or sexual abuse the Court may list a fact finding hearing. This could mean a trial which lasts for several days which you and the other parties along with experts will be asked to give evidence.
Can I see my children when they are in foster care?
If your children are placed in foster care, then the Local Authority have a duty to promote contact. In most circumstances, it is likely that the level of contact you have with your child will not be enough. Usually contact can take place several times a week but rarely on a daily basis even if your child is extremely young.
Can my family members look after the children instead of foster care?
At the start of proceedings, the Court will ask if there are any family members who would wish to be assessed. In some circumstances, family members can be an alternative to foster care so it is extremely important that these family members are put forward as soon as possible. The Local Authority will then have to carry out a viability assessment which can lead on to other fuller assessments, including Special Guardianship assessments. As all of these take time it is important family members who could look after your children if you cannot are identified early so that they can be assessed and ready to step in if for any reason you cannot look after your children.
What assessments can I expect during the course of the proceedings?
As a parent, you will automatically have a parenting assessment, usually carried out by a social worker. There may be other assessments asked for whether it is drug or alcohol testing or of a psychiatric nature. As all families are different so are the various assessment. All those involved in the proceedings will have a say on the type of assessments but other than the parenting assessment it is for the Court to decide.
What happens at the end of proceedings?
At final hearing, the Court will consider whether the Local Authority has made out the threshold upon which they base their application to Court. The Court will be asked to consider what final Orders are made. The Local Authority may seek a final Care Order or final Supervision Order. In some circumstances, the Local Authority may seek No Orders at all and arrangements may be made for the placement of a child either back at home under private law Orders such as a Child Arrangements Order or with family members. In those circumstances, a non-resident parent may seek orders setting out the contact that you have with your child.
If, at the time of filing the Local Authority’s final evidence they do not support return of the child to its biological family and are considering adoption, then the Local Authority will have to issue a Placement Application. A Placement Order is not an Adoption Order and this will come at a later stage.
Can I appeal against a final Order?
You will be advised at the outcome of any final hearing as to the merits of appeal. An appeal can only be made if a Judge has made a decision that is wrong in law; it cannot simply be made because you disagree with the outcome of the hearing. You need to move swiftly as there is a time limit on applications to appeal.
A final Order has been made, can I apply for it to be discharged?
You cannot make an application within the first 6 months of a Care Order being made and you may be advised to wait longer. If you wish to apply to discharge a final Care Order or a Special Guardianship Order, then you must first apply to Court for permission to do so. You will only be given permission if you can show there has been a significant change in circumstances. Any application to discharge a Care Order is usually for children who have been placed in long term foster care, as it is extremely difficult to set aside an Adoption Order (although you can oppose this Order being made in the first place).
Do I have to pay for any of my legal advice?
Legal Aid funding is available for cases involving Social Services, some is means tested, some is not. There are three distinct stages of funding available:
- Pre proceedings and prior to receipt of a PLO letter: You will be assessed for financial eligibility under the Legal Help at Court scheme. Your income and capital will be taken into account.
- PLO proceedings: If you have a letter from the Local Authority inviting you to a meeting with your solicitor you are eligible for non means non merits tested Legal Help
- Court Proceedings: If you are a parent or the holder of parental responsibility (such as a special guardian or a holder of a child arrangements order live with) then you are entitled to non-means, non-merits tested public funding. This means that your income and capital are not taken into account. It is extremely important that you make sure that you instruct a solicitor who you are confident can represent you to the best of their ability as any application for transfer of a public funding certificate midway through proceedings can be very difficult. This is due to how the funding is put in place by the Legal Aid Agency.