What happens before the LA decide to apply for a care order?
This is known as the ‘pre-proceedings’ stage. The aim is to try and intervene and help families before getting to the stage of making an application to the court.
See Chapter 2 of the Guidance from the Department of Education.
The LA should aim to work in partnership with the family, to assess their needs and identify what support could be offered to them. Family Group Conferences are recommended as a good way to get wider family on board and to investigate what support they can offer. If matters are not improving, then a ‘legal planning meeting’ should take place to consider whether the threshold criteria have now been met and care proceedings should be issued.
You may also be interested in our post on investigations and referrals.
What if the situation is urgent?
The Pre-Proceedings stage is only appropriate if the situation is NOT so serious as to require immediate action. If the LA decide that a situation is urgent, they must consider applying for an Emergency Protection Order.
What if the child hasn’t yet been born?
If the baby isn’t born yet, care proceedings can’t start. If the LA are worried about someone who is pregnant and they want to consider starting proceedings after birth, the pre-proceedings stage is a useful framework for trying to get help and support in place to keep the family together. It also allows for the parents to get legal advice relating to the pre-birth assessments, and the proposals for after the baby is born.
Letter before proceedings
If it is decided that the situation is not so serious as to require immediate removal of a child, the LA will then issue a ‘letter before proceedings’ to the parents. If the LA are concerned that the parents may not fully understand the concerns, they must take this into account and consider what services are available to the parents, such as an advocate.
The letter should contain:
- A summary of what the LA is worried about, set out in simple language;
- A summary of what support has already been given;
- What parents need to do, how they will be helped to do it and how quickly they have to get it done; and
- Information on how to obtain legal advice and advocacy.
It is vital that parents engage with the process and get some legal advice.
If parents don’t engage, the process will simply carry on without them and it may end up in court without the parents having had much input. This will obviously make it much more difficult for them to argue that their child should remain in their care as the court will worry that the parents just don’t understand the problems and aren’t taking them seriously.
The Pre-Proceedings Meeting
The letter will also invite the parents and anyone else who has parental responsibility for the child to a meeting to look at the current concerns about the child’s welfare. At the meeting, the aim is to agree a revised plan for the child, which should be set out in writing and which will set out what needs to be done to avoid going to court. It should be very clear what is expected of everyone and the timescales for carrying out the plan. This plan needs to be reviewed within six weeks to see if things are getting better or if the court now needs to be involved.
Once parents get the pre-proceedings letter they are entitled to free legal help which will include having a solicitor come to meetings with the LA. The LA should include with the pre-proceedings letter a list of all specialist family law solicitors in the local area, but the parents are free to select who ever they like.
Letter of issue
Once the LA decide that progress isn’t being made, or isn’t being made quickly enough to meet the child’s needs, they will have to make an application to the court. They will then send the parents a letter to say they are going to do this, and advising the parents to seek urgent legal advice. The parents will be able to obtain free legal advice and representation throughout the court proceedings.
Again, It is vital that parents don’t delay going to see their solicitors; the lawyers can’t act without instructions.
If for whatever reason a parent does not want to involve a lawyer, it is still very important to engage and turn up to meetings and court hearings, otherwise decisions will be made in your absence and without your input.
See our post What if I don’t have a lawyer? for alternatives to legal help.
How effective is the pre-proceedings process?
There has been research from the University of Bristol and the University of East Anglia in 2013 into how this operates, and its effect on diverting cases away from court.
The key points to come from the research were:
- Use of the pre-proceedings process varies between local authorities. Those in the study used it in almost all cases where there was time to do so, around half of all cases where care proceedings were started.
- A third of pre-proceedings cases involved pre-birth assessments. Meetings were used to agree assessments, services and /or alternative care.
- Use of the process was supported by social workers and their managers who saw it as a more respectful way to work with families at risk of care proceedings.
- Parents felt supported by having their lawyer at the pre-proceedings meeting; for some this helped them to engage with children’s services and improve care.
- The pre-proceedings process did succeed in diverting cases from court. Based on the file sample, about a quarter of cases did not enter care proceedings; in a third of these children were protected by kin care or foster care; and in two-thirds by improvements in care at home.
- Care proceedings were not shorter where the pre-proceedings process had been used. Courts did not appear to take particular account of this work.
- The pre-proceedings process delayed decisions for children who entered care proceedings. Court applications were delayed by attempts to use the process and sometimes by failure to recognise family care was not improving.