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We provide advice to parents, grandparents, relatives, friends and kinship carers who are involved with children’s services in England or need their help. We can help you understand processes and options when social workers or courts are making decisions about your child’s welfare.

Our advice service is free, independent and confidential.

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To speak to an adviser, please call our free and confidential advice line 0808 801 0366 (Monday to Friday 9.30am to 3pm, excluding Bank Holidays). Or you can ask us a question via email using our advice enquiry form.

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Our get help and advice section describes the processes that you and your family are likely to go through, so that you know what to expect. Our webchat service can help you find the information and advice on our website which will help you understand the law and your rights.

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The stages of care proceedings

It is important that families know what will happen during care proceedings.

Read on for easy to follow information about each of the main stages.

The arrow below shows the main stages which make up care proceedings.

Application sent to court and ‘issued’

To start care proceedings children services must make an application and send it to the Family Court. This can be for a care order or a supervision order. To do this, they must complete a form to tell the Family Court about:

  • The child they are worried about
  • The child’s parents or carers
  • Why children’s services are making the application
  • What they think is the best immediate plan to keep the child safe and well cared for
  • What court orders they think are needed to put that plan in place
  • Whether they think an urgent hearing is required. This will depend on whether children’s services think those involved in the proceedings (known as the parties) will agree to the proposed immediate plans for the child.

The lawyer for children’s services will send the application to the Family Court. At the same time, or very soon after, children’s services must let the court have supporting documents. Open or download this table which explains more about this.

Once the court has checked all the right papers have been provided, it will process the application. This is known as issuing. It formally starts the court process.

All care proceedings start in the Family Court. But cases can be heard by different types of decision-makers:

  • Some cases are heard by a Judge
  • Some very complex cases will move to be heard by a very senior Judge in the High Court
  • Other cases may be dealt with by Magistrates – volunteers who hear court cases in their community.

When an application is received, the court will decide whether it is best for Magistrates or a Judge to deal with the case. To do this, the court must look at guidance about where different types of cases should be heard. This is called allocation guidance.

Our Ten big questions about care proceedings which explains more about Who makes decisions in the Family Court.

Notices and court directions sent out

Once the court has issued the application, a notice will be sent to all the parties. This notice should:

  • Confirm the case has been issued
  • Give a court reference number for the case
  • Say when and where the first court hearing will take place.

The court will also make ‘directions’. These are instructions from the court telling everyone involved what they need to do before the first hearing. These directions will:

  • Require each parent, with their solicitor, to prepare a response document. This must briefly explain what they have to say about the concerns set out in the application and supporting statement from children’s services

Appoint a children’s guardian. This is an independent social worker. They do not work for children’s services. Their role is to represent the interests of the child through the care proceedings. And to provide recommendations to the court about what is in the child’s best interests The Guardian will then choose a solicitor for the child. See Who is involved in care proceedings? table for more information about the role of the guardian and the child’s solicitor.

Case management hearing (CMH)

A case management hearing is usually the first court hearing that takes place. The court will not make any final decisions at this hearing. But will:

  • Review the application, including the proposed care plan for the child.
  • Identify the main issues in the case.
  • Set a timetable for the case.

The court will usually want to complete care proceedings in 26 weeks. But more time can be allowed if it is needed to make sure things are dealt with fairly. An extension can only be for eight weeks. But there can be more than one extension. If a party thinks the case needs to take longer than 26-weeks they will be able to make an application to the court for an extension.

There are some cases that don’t have to follow a 26-week timetable. A case which will involve gathering information from another country is one example.

What the courts have said about case management

The Court of Appeal has said that the 26-week timetable rule ‘is not, and must never be allowed to become, a straightjacket’. This means it is important that the timetable that the court sets for a case is the right and fair for that case. See the case of M-F (Children) [2014] EWCA Civ 991 at paragraph 26). So if more time is needed to make sure assessment work is properly and fully done an application should be made to extend the timetable.

What working out the timetable for a case includes:

  • What information the court needs to make a final decision about the child’s future at the final hearing
  • What work social workers (or another practitioners) should do, and by when
  • The deadline for any specialist or expert assessments. And who should do these
  • What other information social workers, parents and anyone else involved in the case should share. This will include a written statement from the parents explaining their views and what they would like to happen
  • Whether any family members will be assessed as potential carers for the child. This is in case the child cannot remain in the care of their parent(s)
  • If the case has an international aspect to it, decide if the Family Court in England is the right court to make decisions about the child.

The court will also note down key dates for the child. For example, their birthday, important school dates and any looked after child review meetings or other key meetings with children’s services.

Having a timetable helps to make sure that parents, carers and children know when final decisions will be made. And when different kinds of information (evidence) should be shared.

What else will the court look at – what is agreed, what is not

The court should look at what the issues are in the case. This involves seeing if there is agreement about what should happen for the child until the final hearing. This should include finding out if there is any agreement about:

  • Where the child should live until then
  • Whether the child can live with a family member until the final hearing (if they are not able to live with their parent(s))
  • Who the child should be in touch with. This includes who the child should see, how often and other such arrangements. This often referred to as contact arrangements
  • Whether any court order needs to be in place.

If there is disagreement about what the interim (temporary) arrangements for a child should be, then the court can either:

  • Try to make a decision at the CMH, or
  • Set a date for a longer hearing when these things can be looked at and a decision made.

The case management hearing – tips for parents

This is an important hearing that will shape what happens in the proceedings and when. It will be important for parents involved in care proceedings to work closely with their solicitor and keep in regular contact with them. For tips and information to help with that see our Working with a solicitor guide on our Top tips and Templates page.

Parents should discuss with their solicitor and social worker who in the family might be able to support them as soon as possible. Family members who may be able to offer care for the child should share this information as soon as possible. How this can best and most quickly be done will depend on precise situation.

Options include:

  • Contacting the child’s social worker directly if their name is known. The child’s parent may be able to provide this information and contact information for the social worker
  • Asking the parent(s) to let their solicitor or the child’s social worker know
  • Contacting children’s services via phone, email or letter. The contact information should be available on the local council website or from directory enquiries
  • Contacting the children’s guardian or the child’s solicitor, if their details are known
  • Writing to the court dealing with the case – if the family members is aware of the details. Or if the situation is urgent and there is a court hearing about to take place, the family member can attend court themselves.

A family group conference can be a good way to find out how family and friends can help. This is a family-led planning meeting which brings together the whole family, and others who are important to the child. Together they make a plan for the child. Children’s services may suggest that a family group conference takes place. But parents and carers can also request this. See our Family group conference: advice for families page for information.

Issues resolution hearing (IRH)

The Issues resolution hearing is used to see whether the parties can reach agreement on long-term plans for the child. This includes:

  • Where the child should live
  • Who the child should see or be in contact with, and what way.

If the parties do not agree on the plan for the child, the hearing will be used to work out exactly what issues the court needs to decide.

Before the Issues resolution hearing:

The parents’ solicitor should meet with the other lawyers in the case. This is known as an advocates’ meeting. The aim of the meeting is to agree what needs to be looked at during the issues resolution hearing. And to if it is likely the case can finish or if a final hearing will be needed.

The issues resolution hearing should take place after:

  • All assessment work is complete. This includes all parenting and expert assessments. And any assessments of potential family carers for the child
  • Children’s services have put into a written care plan and supporting social work statement what they think the right long-term plan for the child is
  • The parents have responded to the plans and other documents in their own written statements
  • The children’s guardian has prepared a final report explaining what they think the right long-term plan for the child is. This is called the guardian’s final analysis and recommendations.

Will there need to be a final hearing?

If the parties agree about what is best for the child, the issues resolution hearing might be the last hearing. If the parents or children’s guardian do not agree with the care plan children’s services have drawn up a date will be set for a final hearing. How long a final hearing will last will depend on how much is agreed about the plans for the child. And on how many people are involved in the case.

Getting ready for a final hearing – Tips for parents

It is very important for a parent to stay in contact with their solicitor and to go through all of the court paperwork before the issues resolution hearing.

Parents need to work with their solicitor to:

  • Go through children’s services’ proposed final plan for the child
  • Go through the final statement from the child’s social worker about why they think the plan is the right plan
  • Discuss what the main issues in the case now are – these may have changed since the case management hearing
  • Understand what it is the court will need to decide at the hearing

Put their written statement together explaining their views about what is best for their child and why. And what decision they would like the court to reach about their child’s future. The parent’s solicitor will help them to write this statement.

Final hearing

If things have not been agreed at the issues resolution hearing, a final hearing will take place.

The final hearing is when the Family Court will makes final decisions about:

  • The best long-term care arrangements for the child
  • Who the child should have an ongoing relationship with and stay in touch with. This includes who the child should see, how often and other such arrangements. This often referred to as contact arrangements
  • Whether any kind of court order is needed to put those arrangements in place.

At the final hearing, the court will have all the relevant paperwork about the case. This will include statements from everyone involved, assessment reports and the final care plan for the child.  The judge or magistrates dealing with the case should have all the relevant documents about the case. These will have been put together in one file called the court bundle. This could be an electronic file or a hard copy. All the parties will have a copy of the bundle.

What happens during the final hearing:

1. Oral evidence

The court is likely to hear oral evidence from some or all of the parties.  And may need to hear from any experts who did assessment work with the child or their family. Oral evidence is the chance for the different people involved in the case to be asked questions. They can then explain their point of view or their recommendations. So, parents or carers may have to speak in court and answer questions. Their lawyer should let them know if this is going to happen and explain what is involved.

2. Submissions

Towards the end of the hearing, the parties’ lawyers will make speeches to the judge. These are called submissions. It is a chance to explain again what each party involved in the case thinks is best for the child and why. And highlight to the judge what the most important information and evidence in the case has been.

3. Judgment

If the case has been heard by a judge, they will give their decision in a judgment. This is a speech in which the judge summarises all the key information about the child and family. In it the judge explains the evidence they have listened to and considered. It states what decision the Judge has reached. And the reasons for their decision.

The judge will usually give their judgment verbally. But a copy may also be provided to the parties in writing. After hearing the judge may publish their judgment online. If they do this, they will change the names of the family members and children involved so no one knows who the case is about.

4. Magistrates Reasons

If the care proceedings have been dealt with by magistrates then they will give their decision in writing in a document called Justices Reasons. A copy of the Reasons should be given to all of the parties.

Once the judgment (or Reasons) is given, parents will be able to talk to their solicitor about what has been decided and what it means for the child and their family.

Children’s services departments have a range of legal duties to make sure children looked after in the care system are well cared for. They have duties to ensure parents and other important family members are consulted about key decisions concerning the child. These duties apply whatever the reason a child has come to be looked after.

So, if a child is looked after in the care system during, or after, care proceedings it is important that their family know about these duties. The precise duties will depend on whether the child is looked after under a voluntary arrangement or under a court order. See our:

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