Sometimes Social Services consider that a child has suffered significant harm, or is at risk of suffering such harm.
If the harm is caused by something the carers are (or aren’t) doing then social services may take the matter to court. These are often called
These are very important cases. Sometimes they can lead to children being removed for the parents’ care. It is for this reason that legal aid is available as of right to a child’s parents, and to anyone who has Parental Responsibility for that child.
Anyone who is eligible for legal aid should see a solicitor before approaching a barrister direct.
If the court decides that a child has suffered, or is likely to suffer, significant harm as a result of the parents’ care of the child then the court may make a Care Order or a Supervision Order.
If children are not placed with parents then they may move to live with family friends, or relatives. This can lead to problems if the parents and the new carers have the same rights in respect of the child.
For example, they may disagree about contact arrangements, or schooling. But if the court appoints the new carers as Special Guardians, then they will have enhanced Parental Responsibility and can make decisions even if the parents object.
If the parents want the child to return to their care, they cannot make an application as of right. They must first ask the court for permission to make the application.
The expectation is that Special Guardians will look after the children until they reach adulthood.
Special Guardians are also entitled to a support package to help them look after the children. This package will includes financial support.
The judge has to deal with two central issues in care cases:
If the answer is
no to the first quesstion, then the case comes to an end. The court has no power to make an order in a case brought by social services if the child has not suffered significant harm and is unlikely to do so.
If the answer is
yes to the first question, then the judge must think about the second issue. Here there may be a number of options. For example:
In terms of court hearings, there might be half a dozen or more. Generally speaking there are four types of court hearing:
The court has a duty to complete care cases within 26 weeks. This happens most of the time, but not always.
There are two important scenarios where legal aid may not be available:
First, if allegations are made about someone who is not automatically entitled to be part of the case. For example, it may be that a child has been injured and there is a suspicion that the injuries were inflicted by someone. In this scenario the parents might allege that, say, a babysitter or step-parent is to blame. If the court thinks that this possibility should be investigated, the baby-sitter or step-parent (or whoever) will be invited to join the court case. This is sometimes called inviting someone to
There will then be a hearing when the court will try to identify the person who harmed the child. Occasionally this is done at a separate hearing (called a
fact-find hearing). More often this identification is done as part of the final hearing.
Unfortunately, although the allegations can sometimes be very serious, legal aid is only seldom available.
Second, social services have a duty to think about family members with whom the child could be placed if he can’t go home. If the assessment of the family member is positive, then all is well. Problems arise however if the assessment is negative.
If that family member wishes to challenge the assessment then he may need to make an application to join the care proceedings and to seek a fresh assessment. Family members have a crucial role in these cases. Often they are the last option before long-term foster care or even adoption. But legal aid is not generally available.