Cases that involve Social Services

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 care cases.

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.

Orders the court can make

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.

Care Order
This is a very important order. If the court makes a Care Order then social services will have Parental Responsibility (PR) for the child concerned along with anyone else who already has PR. Importantly, although this PR will be shared, social services will have the final say on where the child lives, goes to school, etc. In fact, in some cases social services will leave the child at home even though they have a Care Order. Alternatively the child might be placed in foster care. Care orders can also be the first step on the road to adoption.
Supervision Order
A supervision order does not give PR to social services. Instead, if the court makes a Supervision Order then it places social survices under an obligation to advise, assist and befriend the child and their family. Supervision Orders typically last for 12 months. These orders are often made when there were concerns about the parents initially, but things have improved as the case progressed.
Special Guardianship Orders

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.

How the court makes its decision

The judge has to deal with two central issues in care cases:

  1. Has the child suffered significant harm, or is he likely to do so?
  2. What is the best plan for the child?

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:

  • The parents might have made great strides and the problems at home are now much reduced. Here the court might make no order at all and the child can stay at home
  • The parents might have made significant improvements but still need some help. Here the judge might make a Supervision Order
  • The parents still aren’t able to provide good-enough parenting for their child. But a family member – perhaps an aunt or a grandparent – is happy to step in and be a long-term carer. In this example the judge might make a Special Guardianship order in favour of the aunt or grandparent.
  • If the child cannot safely stay with the parents and there are no suitable alternative carers within the extended family, the court may make a Care Order and permit social services to place the child in foster care. As a last resort, the court may allow social services to look for a family who will adopt the child.

The procedure

In terms of court hearings, there might be half a dozen or more. Generally speaking there are four types of court hearing:

  1. A case management hearing. This is when the judge will consider whether the case is processing as it should, and what further steps need to be taken. Often the judge will be asked to authorise various assessments. For example, parenting assessments, psychiatric assessments and blood and/or hair strand testing for drug and alcohol abuse. These hearings might last an hour or more.
  2. A hearing where the final hearing is still some way off but one party wants the court to make a very important decision. For example, social services may be so worried that they want to remove the child from the parents as soon as possible. They might then suggest that the child moves to foster care while various assessments are completed in readiness for the final hearing. This sort of hearing may require half a day or more, possibly even several days, to resolve.
  3. Issues Resolution Hearing (IRH) When all the paperwork is available, and all the assessment are completed, there will be an Issues Resolution Hearing (IRH). As the name suggests, the judge at this hearing will try to resolve as many of the issues as he can. If everything is resolved then the case comes to an end.
  4. Final Hearing If the parties cannot agree on the way forward there will need to be a final hearing. This may last for several days or even several weeks.

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:

  1. 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 intervene.

    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.

  2. 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.


You don’t need a solicitor to instruct me. I am available through the Direct Access Scheme.

To discuss your case
Call 0800 228 9350 or email Adam Clegg