What we do
The legal services we offer are as follows:
Signature Law LLP approaches each case with a level of understanding only achievable through specialising in Child Care law. Whether involving social services, or a private law matter, it is important to be represented by those who understand how the law may affect you and your family.
We advise and represent parents, other family members, children and children’s guardians in all public law proceedings. These include proceedings where the local authority has applied for Emergency Protection Orders, Care Orders or where parents apply for contact with children in care and discharge of Care Orders. We can also advise and assist where children are voluntarily accommodated and will attend Child Protection Conferences. We are there to support parents and provide them with advice and empower them during this difficult time.
Full public funding is usually granted to all parents and children involved in public law cases, regardless of financial means.
Sometimes, parents are unable to care for their children either permanently or temporarily – and in such cases, parents may approach Social Services to accommodate children.
Under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989, local authorities have a legal obligation to provide accommodation in certain circumstances, including:
- If a child has been abandoned by their parents or is separated from their parents
- If a child’s parents are temporarily or permanently unable to care for their child
- There is no adult with Parental Responsibility for a child.
In such cases, Social Services can step in and accommodate a child either in a residential care home or with foster parents.
A child’s parents or those with parental responsibility for a child must first give Social Services permission to arrange accommodation for their child. Parents will retain parental responsibility once their child has been found accommodation by the local authority.
Parents have the right to ask for their child to be returned – but in some circumstances Social Services might not comply with this request or might delay taking action to return a child to their parents.
In these cases, disputes can easily arise over the care arrangements for a child who has been given accommodation under Section 20 – as well as any contact parents have with their child once they have been placed in accommodation or with a foster family.
In some cases, local authorities may even consider putting children who have been voluntarily accommodated up for adoption.
It is advisable for parents considering asking the local authority to take their child into voluntary care to take legal advice before doing so
Signature Law LLP have expertise in child care matters – including the issues around children taken into local authority care and children voluntarily accommodated.
Child Protection Conference
A Child Protection Conference (CPC) is a meeting between parents, guardians or carers, Social Services and other agencies, when concerns have been reported about the welfare of a child.
A Child Protection Conference is arranged as a result of a Section 47 enquiry, which refers to Section 47 of the Children Act 1989. A Section 47 enquiry requires all the relevant agencies and professionals involved in a child’s care to cooperate in any child protection enquiry initiated by social workers.
A Section 47 enquiry is always initiated if there is reasonable suspicion that a child is at risk or is likely to be at risk from sexual, emotional or physical abuse – or is being neglected or harmed.
In urgent cases, a CPC will be arranged if an Emergency Protection Order is in place or Police Powers of Protection are involved. Child Protection Conferences may be arranged if there are allegations of abuse or physical injury, or there is a history of domestic violence within a family – or if there is evidence of abuse or physical injury, or a child is at risk because of a known abuser in a household or who joins a household.
Parents and Child Protection Conferences
The initial meeting with Social Services can be extremely daunting for parents, guardians or carers – but the aim of the meeting is to discuss the issues and enable information from child care professionals such as teachers and doctors to be shared, so that Social Services can reach a decision about what is in the best interests of a child – and whether a child is at risk and needs to be taken into care.
It is important to realise that just because a Child Protection Conference has been scheduled, this does not mean that your child will definitely be taken into care – and any measures to protect a child which Social Services decide upon will be set out in a Child Protection Plan, which will be reviewed after three months.
If children are old enough to understand what is happening, they will also be able to attend the Child Protection Conference – and parents and older children will also receive in advance copies of the reports to be presented at the conference by Social Services.
It is crucial that parents, guardians or carers with Parental Responsibility seek legal advice from a specialist child care solicitor with expertise in child protection matters, who can advise on the specifics of the case, help parents and children understand the reports by Social Services before attending the conference – and can represent and speak for parents and their children at the Child Protection Conference to ensure that children are not taken into care.
Provisions for Children in Need under S. 17
Section 17 (also called S.17) under the Children Act 1989 is used when a child is classed as in need – for example if they are disabled and have special needs, or have a health issue which may affect their standard of living or development without the necessary support.
A Section 17 may also apply to mental health needs as well as physical health needs – and may also involve physical, emotional, intellectual, social or behavioural development needs.
Under S.17, the local authority has a legal duty to provide any services a child needs to help them – but parents may be required to pay for the services unless they are in receipt of out-of-work benefits or other benefits.
Local authorities can also approve cash help to families who have children with special needs – including children who might have been born with a condition which means they require extra support, or have an acquired condition through illness or accident.
The Department of Health has published guidance for local authorities to help analyse how a child in need might be helped. The Framework for the Assessment of Children and their Families 2000 sets out how a child might be helped and their developmental needs – as well as how to protect children in need from harm and how their families can help meet a child’s needs.
Once a child has been classed as having special needs, the local authority must offer a range of services to the family and the child, such as:
- Counselling if needed
- Domestic help for the family
- Holiday assistance for the child and family
- Travel assistance to any agencies or services provided
- Social and leisure activities.
- Section 17 and Section 47 Children Act 1989
Kinship is a means by which a child who might be taken into care or placed with foster parents by Social Services can remain living with a family member such as a grandparent, guardian or carer if their parents are unable to care for them.
Applying for kinship means assuming Parental Responsibility for a child and the decision should not be taken lightly, as both carers with kinship and children have legal rights – and local authorities retain certain legal duties towards children in kinship foster care. Due to the complexities involved in applying for kinship, it is advisable for carers to take expert legal advice before making a final decision.
Even if a child is a family member, they may be a child in need of additional support for physical or mental health conditions – or may have suffered trauma as a result of past experiences or abuse. Caring for a child in need can be rewarding but challenging – and maintaining a stable home for children in kinship foster care is paramount.
Financial support and Kinship
Obtaining support and services from the local authority for children in kinship foster care or in need can also require legal intervention to help ensure the local authority fulfils its legal duties under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989.
Placing a child with a family member may cost the local authority less than a placement with a foster family – and although it may be difficult to consider the financial aspect of applying for kinship when accepting Parental Responsibility for a child, kinship foster carers must make sure they can support a child financially and that they receive the same financial support from the local authority as foster carers not related to the child.
Signature Law LLP can advise family members, guardians and carers considering applying for kinship on their legal obligations as a kinship foster carer – including accepting Parental Responsibility for a child – as well as a local authority’s legal duties towards a child in kinship foster care and their carers.
Under the Public Law Outline (PLO) 2014 for care and supervision, local authorities have to advise parents using straightforward language about any welfare concerns relating to their children – including if care proceedings are being considered by Social Services. The local authority will send a Pre-proceedings Letter to explain any welfare concerns – and state what parents need to do to avoid children being taken into care.
The Pre-proceedings Letter will also offer details of the Pre-Proceedings Meeting which parents attend to discuss the issues with Social Services. The letter will suggest that parents appoint their own solicitor to advise them and represent them at the meeting.
Parents who receive a Pre-proceedings Letter are usually eligible for public funding (Legal Aid) to pay for the services of a child care solicitor to advise them and speak for them at the Pre-proceedings Meeting with Social Services.
It is important for parents or those with Parental Responsibility to take legal advice when they receive a Pre-proceedings Letter because the Local Authority will record the details of what is discussed at the Pre-proceedings Meeting – and this may influence any future care proceedings.
Parents who agree to cooperate with the local authority over its concerns about their child or children will also be asked to sign an Agreement, which will be reviewed according to a timescale set by Social Services.
Signature Law LLP understand that parents or carers faced with a Pre-proceedings Meeting may feel anxious about what is going to happen – and seeking help from a specialist children lawyer can help prepare parents for the meeting.
Powers of Court – Care Order
When a child is considered to be at risk of “significant harm” by the local authority, Social Services can apply to the court for a Care Order so that the child will be taken into local authority care. This can be extremely distressing for both the child and their parents.
The family courts act in the best interest of the child – and it may be that parents are not able to care for their children for a period of time, or children may be at risk because of domestic abuse within a household.
A Care Order enables the local authority to share Parental Responsibility with the parents, guardians or carers of a child consider to be at significant risk. When the local authority applies to the court for a Care Order, the court will also require Social Services to submit a Care Plan for a child within a set time.
Signature Law LLP can advise parents and those with Parental Responsibility on Care Orders and how to prevent Social Services from taking children into care as well as advising on applying to discharge a Care Order.
Discharging a Care Order
Parents, guardian and carers can challenge a Care Order if they have Parental Responsibility for a child. Parents applying to discharge a Care Order can only do so six months after the Care Order has been granted and must be able to prove there are good reasons for applying to discharge the Care Order. A child may also apply to the court to discharge a Care Order.
Applying to discharge a Care Order will require legal advice from a specialist solicitor to help prepare and present the case to the court.
No Order Principle
If the family courts are not satisfied that the local authority has reasonable grounds to apply for a Care Order or other type of court order, then a court order will not be granted. The No Order principle also applies to parents who are not in dispute although the Children Act 1989 provides for disputes between parents or those with Parental Responsibility and the local authority, it is not necessary to apply for a court order to formalise a child care arrangement if there is no disagreement over a child’s welfare, upbringing or which parent they live with.
Under the Children Act, the court will always rule that no order should be made unless it is in the best interests of the child.
In the case of local authority children’s services, under the No Order principle, Social Services must have reasonable grounds for believing a child is at risk of “significant harm” or has already been subjected to harm – such as physical or sexual abuse or neglect – before applying for a Care Order or Emergency Protection Order. However, the family courts always place the welfare of the child first – and if a judge considers there are not reasonable grounds for taking a child into care, again no order will be granted and the child will remain living where they are.
In cases where there is a risk of child abuse, the family court may prefer to remove the risk and take action to prevent an abuser having contact with a child, rather than remove a child from an otherwise loving home. This might apply in cases where the partner of a parent has been convicted or is guilty of domestic violence or child abuse.
Police Protection Orders
A Police Protection Order is an emergency measure taken when a child is considered to be at immediate risk of harm, such as physical or sexual abuse. Police Protection Orders last for 72 hours and enable the police to remove a child from their home and find alternative accommodation for them until Social Services decide whether to apply for a Care Order.
Since a Police Protection Order may lead to a child being taken into care, parents, guardians or carers with Parental Responsibility must seek legal advice immediately from a specialist solicitor.
Signature Law LLP can advise parents whose children have placed on a Police Protection Order on their options to prevent their child being taken into care if the local authority decides to apply for a Care Order.
Signature Law LLP can also liaise with Social Services on behalf of parents, guardians and carers when a child has been placed on a Police Protection Order and has been removed from their home.
When a local authority has concerns about the welfare of a child who may be at risk of harm or neglect, a Section 47 enquiry is launched, usually followed by a Pre-proceedings meeting with the child’s parents, guardians or carers – as well as the child if they are old enough to understand what is happening. Parents should attend the meeting with their solicitor, who can present their case to Social Services. If parents agree to cooperate with Social Services and put in place measures to ensure their child is safe and is well cared for, the local authority may decide that a Supervision Order is appropriate.
A Supervision Order enables the local authority to monitor the situation and maintain a degree of control over the child to ensure their wellbeing, without taking the child into care.
Signature Law LLP can advise parents on the implications of a Supervision Order – and how to prevent a local authority from taking their child into care.
Parents or the child can also apply to the court to have a Supervision Order discharged and Signature Law LLP can advise on how to prepare an application to the court, as well as representing the parents or child in court to discharge a Supervision Order.