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Court proceedings may be daunting in any circumstances, but particularly when social services have intervened in your family.
A Family Court hearing relating to children is can be one of the most stressful events a parent can go through so you will need an experienced Child Care Law solicitor to guide you through the court process.To help you deal with the anxiety of Child Care proceedings we know that it is important for you to have an understanding of the court process and how long Child Care matters can take to resolve. Most, but not all Child Care cases will be completed within 26 weeks from the time an application is made to the Court. Cases can sometimes take longer, even up to a year or more, but the Court will decide how long your case is going to take based on the circumstances.
When can the court decide to remove a child?
The local authority will have started court proceedings because they are concerned about the welfare of your child. For a child to be removed from a parent the social workers need to satisfy the court that:
- the child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm and
- that the harm (or likelihood of harm) is attributable to the care given to the child (or likely to be given to the child) not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give or
- that the child is beyond parental control.
At the start of Care Proceedings the local authority will apply to the family court for an ‘interim care order’. This is essentially a temporary care order which allows the local authority to take a child into care for up to 8 weeks whilst care proceedings are ongoing, but it can be renewed after that for up to 28 days at a time.
The test for an ‘interim care order’ is quite low compared to a full care order as the local authority only has to show that it has ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe that the threshold test is met. This is different to having to prove that circumstances alleged to meet the criteria above are true.
At the final hearing the local authority are required to prove to the Court that on the balance of probabilities what they are alleging is true.
Different cases will proceed at their own pace; we will talk to you about the specific matters relating to your case and how care proceedings will work in relation to your circumstances.
When an application is made, at the first hearing the court may have to decide whether to make an interim care order or supervision order. This initial hearing is likely to be within a week of the application being made to the Court.
The Court will also schedule a ‘case management hearing’, which is held on the 12th day after the application is made to the Court. The hearing can take place before the Magistrates, a District Judge or a Circuit Judge. This hearing is to set out a timetable of dates and to make plans and decisions about the future of your child. For example the social workers will have to tell the court about any work they want to do with you to assess if it is safe for your child to return home or to stay at home. The Court will set a date for a further hearing which will be towards the latter end of the 26 week period.
Once all of the parties have put together their assessments, reports and statements then there will be the further Court hearing which is called an ‘issues resolution hearing’. The main purpose of this hearing is to let the Court know whether the plans for a child are agreed or not. If a plan is agreed by everyone then the case can conclude at this hearing. If the plan isn’t agreed then the Court will be asked to list the case for a final hearing.The final hearing is to take place within 26 weeks of the application being put before the Court. A final hearing can be listed for any length of time depending upon how complex your case is. It is at this hearing that a Court will make a final decision about your child.
Other types of court hearings in care proceedings
Emergency Protections Orders
If there is an emergency then there will be a separate hearing where the Court will decide if they should grant an emergency protection order. An EPO can be made for up to 7 days although after that time it can then be extended. The Court will only grant an EPO if the local authority can show that there are reasonable grounds to believe the child is in ‘imminent danger’.The other type of hearing you may hear mentioned are directions hearings. This can be heard at any time and are shorter hearings which are listed to deal with specific issues or applications. For example if during the case you need to appoint a special expert or there is an issue over how often you see your child whilst in care, an application has to be made and a court hearing listed.
Being in Court can be very daunting and there will be a number of different people in court dealing with your case. You are likely to be aware of the social worker. The social worker will be legally represented just like you. The Court will refer to the social worker and their lawyer as the local authority.
Parents and people with parental responsibility are entitled to non-means non-merits tested legal aid. They will be represented by a solicitor.
Your child/ren will also be represented in court as your child is the most important person in the case. Whether your child is a newborn baby or a young teenager they will be appointed a specialist child care solicitor from a different firm, who is on the Law Society’s Children Panel. All our child care solicitors are members of our specialist panel who represent children in care cases. The appointed solicitor will work with another person who is called a Children’s Guardian to independently represent the interests of your child. The Children’s Guardian works for CAFCASS.
We hope that this quick overview gives you a concise picture of what to expect when you go to Court.