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Social Services are involved with my family - when should I seek legal advice?
For the Local Authority to become involved with your family a referral has to be made. A referral can be made from a variety of agencies such as education, health and the police.
The first formal stage when legal advice should be obtained is when a Child Protection Conference is arranged. Parents will be invited to this conference and other agencies working with the family will also be invited to attend. At Child Protection Conferences you are entitled to ask a solicitor to go along to assist and advise you, but funding for this will need to be discussed prior to the conference as it is means tested.
At the initial conference the concerns and worries of the Local Authority will be discussed and you will also be able to put across your own views, thoughts and feelings. During the initial Conference professionals will decide whether they think that your children are safe and their needs are being met. Professionals will consider whether the children need to be subject to a Child Protection Plan. For more information about a Child Protection Conference please see our article on Child Protection Conferences, click here.
If they consider that your children are not currently being kept safe or they have further concerns whilst your children is subject to a Child Protection Plan the Local Authority will arrange a Pre-Proceedings meeting. A Pre-Proceedings meeting is a formal meeting that the Local Authority will arrange when they consider that it may be necessary to go to Court to seek orders to protect your children. You will be formally invited to the meeting by way of a letter which will set out all of the concerns that they have. The Local Authority give a period of time for families to work with them to address their concerns to avoid going to Court, this period is usually 12 weeks where they may ask you to complete assessments or attend parenting groups to assess your care of your children. You will be required to have a solicitor present with you during this meeting and non means non merits Legal Aid is available providing you have the Pre-Proceedings letter. At this stage you will always be advised to be open and honest with the Local Authority and to engage well with them as this is a step before being taken to Court. Please click here for more information regarding Pre-Proceedings meetings.
If the Local Authority consider that their concerns have not reduced after a period of Pre-Proceedings then they will look into issuing proceedings. This effectively means they will make an application to Court, this will be on the basis that they believe that your children are ‘suffering or likely to suffer significant harm’.
At this stage the Local Authority will be applying for an Interim Care Order or an Interim Supervision Order. Cases normally conclude within 26 weeks. If an interim care/supervision order is made then your children may remain at home, be placed with an alternative carer such as a family member, or be placed in foster care. The main difference between the two orders is that if a Care Order is granted then the Local Authority will share parental responsibility of your children with you. Whereas with a Supervision Order the Local Authority do not have parental responsibility for your children but they have a duty to advise, assist and befriend your children and will work very closely with you and your family. For more information regarding Care Orders and Supervision Orders, please click here.
In order for one of these public law orders to be granted there is a threshold criteria that must be met. Again, at this stage Legal Aid will be available to you on a non means non merits basis. It is usually always recommended that you and the other parent are provided with separate representation in case a conflict arises. Your children will be represented by a Children’s Guardian who will be appointed by The Children and Family Court Advisory Service (CAFCAS). The Guardian will advise the Court about the children’s wishes and feelings, and what is in the best interests of the child. Click here to see what the Threshold Criteria requires.
If your children are removed from your care in the interim period whilst proceedings are ongoing, then you will be entitled to a reasonable level of contact with them. If the Court considers it necessary then this contact may be supervised.
Whilst proceedings are ongoing throughout the 26 weeks, there will be further hearings to decide what work needs to be carried out by the different agencies. Reports will be written by the Social Worker and assessments will be undertaken. The Social Worker will put together a formal Care Plan, detailing how the child’s needs should be met.
It is likely that you will be asked to put forward alternative carers. These are people that you would like to care for your children in the event that the Court finds that you are unable to do so. The carers can care for your children during the course of the proceedings or on a long term basis. You will be asked to provide alternative carers at the beginning of proceedings to avoid delay further down the line.
At the end of the proceedings, the Court must consider all of the evidence of all parties and the Local Authority plans and decide whether it can make a final Care/Supervision Order, whether a different Order should be made or whether no Order should be made at all. Throughout the whole process the Court’s main concern will be what is in the children’s best interests. However, should you be unhappy with the outcome of Court you may be able to make an application to discharge the Order made and you will be required to prove what changes you have made since the Order was made. For more information on discharging a Care Order, please click here.
Here at Emery Johnson Astills, our Care Department can offer advice, assistance and representation at all stages of the Local Authority involvement. Should you require representation then please contact Emery Johnson Astills at either our Leicester Office on 0116 255 4855 or our Loughborough Office on 01509 610312 and ask for a member of our Care Team. Alternatively please email us your query on email@example.com and a member of our team will be happy to assist you.