Local authorities have a statutory duty to protect children living in their area. However, understanding the different processes and how these interact with one another can be complicated. Set out below is an explanation of some of the common processes that parents may find themselves involved in if the local authority have safeguarding concerns in respect of their child.
Child in need
As mentioned above, local authorities have a duty to safeguard children and promote their welfare. This duty derives from section 17 of the Children Act which states:
- It shall be the general duty of every local authority (in addition to the other duties imposed on them by this Part)—
- to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need; and
- so far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families,
by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs.
This duty is often activated when a school, doctor, or other professional involved with a child raises concerns about the health and welfare of a child. Once a local authority becomes aware of concerns it has a duty to investigate them and decide if it needs to take further action.
An initial course of action may be to implement a child in need plan. This is a multi-agency plan which sets out which organisations and agencies will provide which services to the child and family. Parents will need to attend a child in need meeting with a social worker and other professionals. Parents may be able to bring a friend, family member or legal advisor along for support, but the meeting will be focused on what can be done to further the child’s welfare, and it should not have the feel of a court hearing. Although this can be an intimidating process for parents, it is important to engage fully with the professionals and remain focused on what services are required to address the concerns raised.
If, after the local authority have conducted an assessment, they determine that a child is suffering, or is at risk of suffering, significant harm they will initiate the child protection process. This will involve an initial child protection conference. This will appear similar in character to a child in need conference, but the level of safeguarding concerns will be more acute. Again, this meeting will be attended by the parents, professionals and representatives from the local authority’s social work team. Parents should be able to bring someone to support them to this meeting. At the end of a child protection conference a vote will be taken by the professionals as to whether to continue the plan or step down from the child protection plan.
A parent may be able to access publicly funded legal help and advice for these processes, subject to financial means testing. Alternatively a family lawyer can provide assistance on a privately paying basis.
If the level of concern that a local authority has about a child is such that they think they may have to start court proceedings, then they will initiate pre-proceedings (known as the Public Law Outline, or PLO, process). To do this a local authority will send a letter to the parents outlining their concerns and inviting the parents to a PLO meeting. The purpose of this meeting is to see what actions can be taken to try and address the concerns and avoid initiating court proceedings. This process can, and often does, run alongside the child protection process outlined above, but is the first stage in a more overtly legal step.
A parent will be entitled to publicly funded legal advice for this process, regardless of their financial means. The focus will still be on the parents and professionals trying to find and implement changes that will resolve the concerns raised, and so it remains imperative that parents fully engage with the social worker and others to try and find solutions that can avoid the need to go to court.
If the local authority’s concerns about a child are not resolved by the above procedures, then they may initiate court proceedings in the family court in respect of the child. This often comes after the local authority feel that child protection and PLO processes have not fully addressed their concerns, but court proceedings could be started straight away if the level of risk that is identified is such that the local authority feels they have to take immediate action to protect a child.
A local authority can apply for an Emergency Protection Order (EPO) if they feel they need to remove a child or parent from the home immediately, or they could apply for a Care or Supervision Order in other circumstances.
These are complex and serious legal proceedings and so it is imperative that a parent who finds themselves in this situation takes legal advice from a specialist family lawyer without delay. Public funding for legal advice (legal aid) is available for parents in these proceedings regardless of their financial means.
Goodman Ray specialise in family law and have an experienced, dedicated team that deal with child protection proceedings. We are always happy to discuss issues to do with child protection matters with those who find themselves involved with local authority children services departments. We can quickly assess your eligibility for publicly funded legal advice and representation, and we can help you navigate your way through these difficult situations to try and reach the best solution for you and your child.