Часто задаваемые вопросы
What is a PLO meeting?
A PLO meeting (short for ‘Public Law Outline Procedure’) is an important meeting with children’s services. It will normally be arranged where the Local Authority has what they consider significant concerns about the welfare of a child. Parents (or other holders of parental responsibility) will be sent a formal letter that is usually titled ‘Public Law Outline Letter’ and will say ‘Do Not Ignore – Urgent’. The reason for that is because these meetings are usually held at short notice so that the issues can be properly dealt with and addressed. You are legally entitled to a solicitor and by showing a solicitor that letter, you are automatically eligible for Legal Aid.
Most PLO meetings are arranged because the Local Authority are so concerned that if things don’t change immediately then they will likely take the matter to court. The PLO meeting is a chance to avoid that by having the parents and Local Authority work together to come to a solution and address the concerns for the child.
At the meeting, there will usually be a social worker and their manager present, a member of the Local Authority legal team, you and your solicitor. The Local Authority will outline their concerns and what they wish to see change. You and your solicitor will then have an opportunity to discuss the concerns; put your views forward and negotiate the way forward. Usually this will involve some form of parenting assessment and may include psychological/psychiatric assessments as well. There is usually a written agreement drafted which is not legally binding but will reflect what has been agreed and is signed by the parent’s and local authority to confirm what is expected of everyone.
What is a child protection conference?
A Child Protection Conference is a formal meeting and is held where there are concerns about a child i.e. that the child may be at risk of suffering significant harm. A conference is arranged and various professionals that are involved with the child or in their lives will usually be in attendance. This can include, but is not limited to, the allocated social worker; health visitor; school welfare officers as well as the police if there has been involvement with them previously.
At this conference, the Chair of the conference will talk through the issues and identify the strengths in the family; the weaknesses; what the concerns are; what action has been taken to address these concerns and what is left to do and by whom.
Each of the professionals involved and the parents will be allowed to participate and have their say on the issues.
At the end of the meeting, there is a vote as to whether the child should be formally placed on the Child Protection Register and have a Child Protection Plan put in place for them. If the vote passes by a majority, then the child will be on the Register and have a formal Plan in place. When placed on the Register, this can only be done under certain categories which are – Physical abuse; emotional abuse; sexual abuse and neglect.
After the initial child protection conference, there will be a review conference within three months to review the Plan and its progress. Another vote will be taken as to whether the Plan should end or continue. If it is to end then it is likely that it will be downgraded to Child In Need. If it is voted to continue then the next review conference will be every six months from that date.
The local authority/social worker have said they are considering taking the matter to court, what should I do?
You should find out what stage the matter is at – when a Local Authority says that they are considering taking the matter to court, they may hold a PLO meeting (see above) to try and address the concerns before they do actually go to court. You should ask them for a letter outlining what they intend to do and whether they have already gone to a legal planning meeting (this is a meeting between the social worker and their lawyers to consider their next steps). Once you have that letter you should contact a solicitor who deals in care proceedings who will be able to assist and advise you as well as contact the Local Authority on your behalf.
How long will court proceedings take?
Most care proceedings, as a matter of law, will take up to six months. They can take longer in certain circumstances, usually due to complexity or if there are unavoidable delays. The courts have recently made clear that if a case needs more time so that it can be properly dealt with, then the court should grant that extension of time. The court will not however grant more time to a case just because it is requested, all considerations in care cases are made with the child’s best interests as the paramount consideration.
What is an interim care order?
This is an order made by the court during care proceedings where the court is reasonably satisfied that a child is suffering or is at risk of suffering significant harm which is attributable to the care given by the parent or the child is beyond parental control. This is known as the ‘Threshold Criteria’ which must be satisfied before an interim care order is made.
Normally, the only people who have parental responsibility for a child are the parents and anyone who has a Special Guardianship Order or Child Arrangements Order (lives with) in their favour.
An interim care order is an order made by the court which grants parental responsibility to the Local Authority which allows them to make decisions for a child that would normally be taken by the parents.
These are temporary orders made during proceedings where the court is concerned that a child is at risk of significant harm; where it is necessary and proportionate to make the order in light of the circumstances and usually where the court is concerned that without that order, there may not be cooperation from the parents during the case in regards to the child.
What happens in care proceedings?
In care proceedings, the first thing that will normally happen is that an independent Guardian will be appointed for the child. This is someone who is an expert in children matters and will act as the ‘voice’ of the child to the court, providing expert advice on how decisions of the court and others will affect the child.
Each parent is entitled to their own legal representation under Legal Aid to ensure that they are on equal footing with the Local Authority and the Guardian, who will also be legally represented.
There will then be a series of hearings, sometimes as few as 2-3 and other times more than that. These are often called ‘Case Management Hearings’ or ‘Interim Hearings’ in which decisions will be made regarding the child’s placement; welfare; addressing the concerns about the child as well as obtaining expert evidence in the form of psychological or psychiatric assessments as well as parenting assessments of the parents.
The Local Authority will need to prepare a ‘care plan’ which will outline what it seeks for the child during the proceedings. This will usually be provided at the first hearing and developed throughout the proceedings as further evidence comes to light.
There will then be a hearing called an ‘Issues Resolution Hearing’. This will take place towards the end of the proceedings and before that hearing, the Local Authority will file its ‘Final Evidence’ i.e. the final statement of the social worker and the final care plan which will set out what the Local Authority is seeking from the court and for the child, having taken into account all of the statements by the parents, the expert assessment outcomes and any other relevant evidence. It will then be for the parents and Guardian to consider whether they agree with the final care plan or not. If there is general agreement then the proceedings can end at the IRH and final orders made. If there is not agreement e.g. because the Local Authority is seeking long term foster care for a child and the parents want the child back in their care, then the court will make directions including for the parent’s to respond to the Final Evidence and list the matter for a contested Final Hearing.
My child is in care, am I allowed to see them?
In short, yes. There is a legal duty on Local Authorities to support and facilitate contact with a child in care unless there is a good reason, i.e. due to risks to a child’s safety or welfare and it being necessary for contact to be stopped, for there not to be contact. Any stopping of contact must last no longer than 7 days, outside of which a court order will be needed.
Where a parent is seeking more contact then the Local Authority is willing to agree to, then an application can be made to the court to seek additional contact. It will need to be outlined what the reasons are for this and why that contact is in the best interests of the child.
The court may then make an order for contact as it sees fit having heard from the parents, the Local Authority and especially the Guardian.
What is a supervision order?
A Supervision Order is an order made during care proceedings where the Local Authority has concerns about a child but does not take the view that it is necessary to share parental responsibility. For such an order to be made, the ‘Threshold Criteria’ referred to above must be met.
This is an alternative that will still involve the Local Authority being involved with a family for at least a year (it can be extended for a further year up to a total of three years) but instead puts a duty on the Local Authority to ‘advise, befriend and assist’ a child. This means that the Local Authority may decide to make certain services available to the child or their family or impose requirements such as where a child should live or do certain activities. Like an interim care order, this can be made during proceedings as an interim supervision order or at the end of proceedings as a final order.
What is an emergency protection order?
This is an urgent order obtained usually on very short notice to protect a child from imminent/immediate risks to their health and safety and urgent action is needed. This order grants parental responsibility to the person named in the order (usually the Local Authority) and will contain relevant directions to safeguard the child e.g. that they should be removed to a particular address or, as can happen often, that they not be removed from hospital e.g. where there is a dispute between the social worker and parent’s about whether treatment is necessary for a child.
As this is an urgent order, it only lasts up to 8 days but can be extended once for a further 7 days making the total duration 15 days. After this time it must be discharged and will usually be replaced either with an interim Supervision Order or interim Care Order as the Local Authority will, following the EPO being made, apply to the court for at least one of those orders so as to begin care proceedings.
My family/friends wish to be assessed as carers, what should I do?
You should immediately tell your solicitor and/or the social worker. Provide that person’s full name and all contact details that you have – phone numbers and email addresses in particular are very helpful. You should also make sure that you have spoken to whoever you are putting forward to make sure they are happy to be put forward and wiling to care for the child so there is no misunderstanding.
The Local Authority will then conduct a brief assessment of the potential carers (also called ‘prospective carers’) to assess their suitability for further assessment and to care for the child. This is known as a ‘viability assessment’. It will involve the social worker meeting with the prospective carers and discussing the issues and their home life so that the social worker is reassured that this person/people could adequately care for the child.
If the assessment is positive, then it will usually be recommended that a more full assessment is done – this will be to consider a ‘Special Guardianship Order’ at the conclusion of proceedings.
If the assessment is negative and the person wishes to contest, then it is open to the parent putting them forward to have them assessed by an independent social worker. Alternatively, the assessed person can seek to make an application for legal aid for an independent assessment in their own right.
What happens if my child is adopted?
Unfortunately at the conclusion of care proceedings, the court may make the decision that the only realistic option for a child is for that child to be adopted. The court will then make a placement order and will usually place the child with the prospective adopter or in foster care until an adopter has been identified.
Following this, the Local Authority on behalf of the prospective adopters shall apply for an adoption order. This order has the effect of severing all legal ties between the parents and the child. If an adoption order is made then the child will, from the date of the order, be legally recognised as the child of the adopters.
It is possible to contest adoption proceedings however, unlike care proceedings, legal aid is not automatic. Also, as part of the proceedings, you will need to show to the court that there has been a change in circumstances since the placement order was made which will allow the placement order to be revoked and then the matter will be reconsidered as part of care proceedings.
Am I entitled to legal aid?
For child protection matters, you must have a means assessment to ensure that you meet the legal aid requirements relating to income and capital. If that is successful, you are eligible for legal aid for as long as your financial circumstances mean that you fall within the legal aid ‘eligibility limits’.
For PLO matters, provided you have a letter from the Local Authority outlining their intention to issue proceedings (also called a ‘Letter Before Proceedings’ and you are someone with parental responsibility, you will be eligible for legal aid, regardless of your income.
For care proceedings, if you are a parent, other holder of parental responsibility or become a ‘joined party’ (i.e. formally added to the proceedings) then you are automatically eligible for legal aid, regardless of your income. Anyone else e.g. a family member who wishes to contest a negative viability assessment, will need to make an application for legal aid which is means and merits tested.
For adoption proceedings, these are fully means and merits tested by the legal aid agency and is not automatic, no matter your status in the proceedings.