Care proceedings are court proceedings brought by the local authority (also known as Social Services or Children’s Services) in relation to a child or children. The local authority will ask the court to make a certain order which they argue will allow the children to be safe. This order is usually a Care Order or a Supervision Order.
The Children Act 1989 allows a local authority to apply to the court for a care order.
A local authority will apply for a care order when they consider that a child is suffering from or is likely to suffer significant harm if a care order were not made. This legal test is often referred to as the threshold criteria.
Significant harm can mean physical harm, emotional harm, ill treatment, neglect or damage to the health or development of the child.
A supervision order places the children under the supervision of the local authority. This order means that the local authority is under a duty to advise, assist and befriend the supervised child. Unlike a care order, a supervision order does not grant the local authority parental responsibility over any of the children. This means that the local authority cannot remove the children from where they are living.
A supervision order only lasts for one year after it was made by the court. However, the court has the power to extend the supervision order for a further two years. This means that a supervision order can last a maximum of three years.
The grounds that must be satisfied for the court to make a supervision order are the same as for care orders.
What Happens if the Court Grant a Care Order?
If the court makes a care order, then the local authority will share parental responsibility for the children with the parents. This means that the local authority must be consulted and will have a say in all decisions concerning the child. The local authority would, however, usually have the final say if there was a dispute between the parents and the local authority over a significant or important issue concerning the children, for example, over where the children should live.
A care order does give the local authority the power to accommodate the children with foster carers or with another family member.
What Is an Interim Care Order?
An interim care order is often applied for by the local authority at the start of Care Proceedings. An interim care order does not favour one party or the other and the court often considers an interim care order to be a ‘holding position’ while the local authority carry out further assessments of the parents.
An interim care order is a temporary order that is made to ensure that the safety of the children is protected until the court has all the information that it needs to make a final decision. Where children are concerned, the court will always act to protect the children. The grant of an interim order often upsets parents, but it should not do so. The court is not making any findings of fact against the parents (usually) and the grant of an interim order should not affect the final decision. The position is that if there is any evidence of harm to the children then the court is bound to make the necessary order to protect the children from that apparent harm.
An interim care order is usually made for the duration of the court proceedings.
Is There a Difference Between an Interim and Final Care Order?
A final care order is one which is made at the end of the proceedings, after the court has heard all of the evidence and has come to a reasoned and final decision. The court has to be satisfied that an order is both necessary and proportionate in the circumstances.
An interim care order is made before the court had heard all of the evidence and usually lasts for the duration of the court proceedings.
It is easier for the local authority to make out a case for an interim care order than it is for a full care order. For an interim care order, all the local authority needs to show is that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the children have suffered or are likely to suffer significant harm if the order was not made. For a full care order, reasonable grounds are not enough. There must be evidence before the court that satisfies the threshold criteria which is accepted by the Judge.
How Long Do Care Orders and Supervision Orders Last?
A final care order usually lasts until the child is 18 years old. A parent or the local authority can apply for a care order to be discharged before the child reaches 18. The local authority will make an application to discharge a care order if everything is going well and if the interests and safety of the child no longer require a care order to be in place.
The Role of the Children’s Guardian
In every application for a care or supervision order, a Children’s Guardian will be appointed.
The Children’s Guardian is appointed to look after the children’s interests and is an independent officer of the court who has a responsibility to ensure that the children’s views (if they are old enough) are put across to the court and to make recommendations to the court as to what he or she considers to be in the children’s best interests.
The Children’s Guardian is completely separate from the local authority and it is his or her independence that is very important in these types of cases. The Children’s Guardian will often take an active role by, for example, encouraging the local authority to take a certain course or action or encouraging the parents to do what is expected of them.
The Children’s Guardian is seen by the court as an ‘expert’ in making recommendations in respect of the children. These recommendations will include where the child should live and what, if any, order should be made in respect of the child.
The children’s Guardian will appoint an independent solicitor to represent the children in the proceedings. The children’s solicitor will be a member of the ‘Children Panel’, which recognises them as specialists in dealing with children cases.
The local authority will apply for a care or supervision order and the matter will be listed for an initial court hearing. The purpose of this initial hearing is for the court to consider the issues and whether it is necessary to make orders in respect of the children and, if so, whether the matter should be listed for a further hearing for the court to consider what order should be made.
The first hearing may also be used to consider what assessments, including any expert assessments, are necessary and to generally timetable the case through to a resolution. The Judge will want to make sure that all the necessary evidence is available to the court before making any final decision.
Once all the necessary evidence is before the court, such as reports and assessments, the matter will be listed for an Issues Resolution Hearing, if there is agreement as to the plan for the children proceedings may conclude at that hearing. If there is disagreement between the local authority, the children’s guardian and/or the parents about issues relating to the children, such as whey they shall live, the matter will be listed for a contested final hearing. In contested hearings, the professionals and the parents will often be required to give oral evidence in a witness box. This will be heard by the Judge and subject to cross-examination. Upon hearing all of the oral evidence and having read the papers, a Judge will then make a decision.
The court’s aim will be to conclude these proceedings within 26 weeks from the date that the local authority makes their application to the court. The court will always try to deal with the matter as soon as possible.
Sometimes it is not possible to conclude the proceedings in 26 weeks and the court can extend the timeline.
What Should You Do if the Local Authority Ask the Court to Make a Care or Supervision Order in Respect of Your Children?
Proceedings involving children will usually be the most stressful time of a parent’s life. It is essential that you instruct a professional with expertise in children law to represent your best interests at court. We have solicitors and legal executives who deal with care proceedings work on a day to day basis.