Care Proceedings Procedure
The term ‘care proceedings’ concerns the local authority’s application to the Court regarding children that the Local Authority do not believe are being cared for properly.
The rules state that care proceedings should be finished within a maximum of 26 weeks of the proceedings being issued. The court always tries to keep to that timetable, but some cases can take longer if they are very complicated.
The general procedure for care proceedings is as follows:
The local authority will issue its application at the nearest location of the Family Court to where the child lives. The Court must then promptly consider several matters, including:
- Whether the case should be heard in a different country if, for example, the child was born in a different country or a parent is from a different country.
- The type of judge that should deal with the case. This will normally depend upon how complicated it is likely to be. The Court will try to name the judge that will deal with the case throughout so that there is continuity in the case.
- The Court must appoint a children’s guardian to represent the child in the proceedings. A guardian is an independent professional (an experienced former social worker) who works for CAFCASS. The guardian is independent of social services and is there to put forward what they believe is in the child’s best interests. The Guardian will usually instruct a solicitor to tell the Court what the Guardian feels is best. The views of the Guardian are often seen as very important in these cases.
- The court will set in place a timetable of dates, also known as directions, by which:
- the parties must provide evidence;
- the parties must make an application to the Court for an independent professional, also known as an expert (e.g doctor, should they want to;
- further evidence must be obtained from third parties, for example any relevant police records or medical records.
- The Court will consider whether an urgent contested hearing is needed to deal with any application for an interim care order made by social services, e.g to place a child in foster care.
- The Court will also list the case management hearing (CMH). This will be the first Court hearing unless an urgent hearing is needed. The CMH must take place between 12 and 18 business days after the local authority issues its application. The Court will ask the solicitor for the child to hold a meeting between the parties’ solicitors before the CMH. This is known as an advocates meeting.
The local authority should always serve a person with parental responsibility with a copy of its application and other relevant documents
STAGE 2: CASE MANAGEMENT HEARING (CMH)
The first main hearing, unless there has been an urgent hearing, will be the CMH. This is a procedural hearing and the Court will not normally make any final decisions about what should happen to a child at this hearing. The Court will normally deal with the following at this hearing:
- Identifying the issues in the case.
- Consider whether there is anyone else who should be made a party to the case, e. g a family member
- Consider what evidence, such as witness statements and assessments, will be needed for the Court to decisions. These documents may come from social services, teachers, doctors, mid-wife’s or other people with relevant information.
- The Court will consider whether there is a disagreement between the parents and the local authority about what led social services to start the proceedings in the first place.
- The Court will consider any application to instruct an independent expert, e.g a psychiatric assessment be asked for if a parent has had mental health difficulties. The Judge has to consider whether an assessment is necessary.
- The Court may order disclosure of other relevant records, e.g police records
- The Court will draw up a timetable for the case, e.g for social services to produce their final statement and final care plan, for assessments to be produced and for the parents and Guardian to file statements responding to these documents.
- The Court will list the next hearing in the case. This will ordinarily be the issues resolution hearing (IRH).
STAGE 3: ISSUES RESOLUTION HEARING (IRH)
The issues resolution hearing is usually the next hearing after the CMH. The Court tries to narrow down the issues in the case. If all parties are agreed as to what should happen, this can actually be the final hearing in the case.
If the case cannot finish because everybody is not in agreement, the Court will set up another hearing called the final hearing.
The case will have a final hearing if there are still matters that are not agreed, e.g social services say that a child should be adopted or live in foster care and the parents disagree with this. The Court will normally want the social worker, the parents and the Guardian to go into the witness box and be asked questions about what they have said in their witness statements. The Judge will also listen to what the solicitors have to say and will then make a final decision.
These hearings usually last at least one day and the Judge must decide what they believe is in the child’s best interests.
We have set out above the main hearings in every case. However, there can be other hearings to sort out certain issues, e.g about how often a parent sees a child (contact). Hearings can be requested at any point during a case. Sometimes, if all parties agree, the judge can make decisions without parties attending Court.
For further information about Care Proceedings, please consider our care proceedings page.