The law is as set out at section 14 D of the Children Act 1989, which is set out at the end of this post. We can see from this that a parent can apply to vary or discharge an SGO but needs the court’s permission first.
‘Vary’ means you want to change the content of the order; ‘discharge’ means you want the order to come to an end. There is probably little point in applying to discharge or vary an order until at least six months have passed since it was first made – if you think that the order should not have been made in the first place, you should consider applying to appeal – but you will have to do that within 3 weeks.
Special Guardianship Orders are meant to be a way of providing a child with a permanent home throughout his childhood so you will need good reasons to say that the order should no longer apply, once it has been made. There is no automatic legal aid for parents in such proceedings.
For more general information about SGOs, see this post.
The courts have decided that this is a two stage test.
a. First the parent must show a change of circumstances.
b. Then the court will consider the child’s welfare and the parent’s prospects of success in challenging the SGO.
Step 1: What counts as a ‘significant change of circumstances’ ?
The courts are unlikely to place much weight on use of the word ‘significant’ when applied to the word ‘changes’. In G (A Child)  EWCA Civ 300 Wilson LJ decided to proceed on the basis that there is no relevant difference between applying for permission to discharge a placement order [under section 24(3) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002] and applying for permission to discharge an SGO, even though section 14D refers to ‘significant’ changes and the Adoption and Children Act does not.
Various courts have agreed that the bar cannot be set too high so that no parents could ever get over it; parents should not be discouraged from trying to improve their circumstances. But the change in circumstances has got to be a relevant one.
In the case of Re B-S (Children)  EWCA Civ 1146 the court described the test for ‘change of circumstances’ in this way, in the context of the Adoption and Children Act 2002:
a. … the court has to be satisfied on the facts of the case that there has been a change in circumstances ‘of a nature and degree sufficient, on the facts of the case, to open the door to the exercise of judicial evaluation’
b. the test should not be set too high, because parents should not be discouraged from bettering themselves or from seeking to prevent the adoption of their child by the imposition of a test that is unachievable;
c. whether or not there has been a relevant change in circumstance must be a matter of fact to be decided by the good sense and sound judgment of the tribunal hearing the application;
d. if there is no change in circumstances, that is the end of the matter, and the application fails.
In another case also called G (A Child)  EWCA Civ 119 the Court of Appeal agreed that a change in the child’s circumstances could also be relevant.
Therefore, the parent will have to demonstrate some relevant changes which on the facts of the particular case in front of the judge, means it is appropriate for the Judge to consider moving on to Step 2 of the process. It is likely that if the concerns about your parenting in the care proceedings were very serious, you will need to show correspondingly serious changes.
For example, in Re G  the mother’s child was living with the maternal grandmother under an SGO after the mother had been in a number of violent relationships. However, the grandmother agreed she would not oppose permission being given to the mother to apply to discharge the SGO, after hearing about the efforts the mother had made to attend counselling/therapy to help her make better relationship choices in the future. The mother was also caring successfully for her second child without any intervention from Children’s Services.
Step 2: What do the courts mean by considering issues about ‘welfare’ and ‘prospects of success’ ?
Having determined that the approach to ‘change’ should be the same for applications to discharge an SGO and to discharge a placement order, it made sense for Wilson JL to also decide in G (A Child)  that courts should take the same approach after deciding that the circumstances had changed.
Wilson LJ confirmed that this means the approach in M v Warwickshire County Council  should be followed, where he said at paragraph 29 of his judgment in that case:
In relation to an application for leave under s.24(3) of the Act I therefore hold that, on establishment of a change in circumstances, a discretion arises in which the welfare of the child and the prospect of success should both be weighed. My view is that the requisite analysis of the prospect of success will almost always include the requisite analysis of the welfare of the child. For, were there to be a real prospect that an applicant would persuade the court that a child’s welfare would best be served by revocation of the placement order, it would surely almost always serve the child’s welfare for the applicant to be given leave to seek to do so. Conversely, were there not to be any such real prospect, it is hard to conceive that it would serve the welfare of the child for the application for leave to be granted.
This means a change in circumstances is a necessary but not sufficient condition to get permission to make the application to discharge a SGO – it opens the door for the Judge to consider it and he or she will then examine the often overlapping issues of the child’s welfare/prospects of success of the application.
The child’s welfare is not however the paramount consideration for the court in this exercise. Also, the issue of “a real prospect of success” relates to discharging/varying the order NOT necessarily the return of the child to the parent’s care. See Re G .
At this stage, the courts will probably want to consider how long the changes you have made have been in place, and how likely they are to be sustained in the future.
Section 14 D Children Act 1989
Special guardianship orders: variation and discharge
(1)The court may vary or discharge a special guardianship order on the application of—
(a)the special guardian (or any of them, if there are more than one);
(b) any parent or guardian of the child concerned;
(c )any individual in whose favour a [Child arrangements order] is in force with respect to the child;
(d) any individual not falling within any of paragraphs (a) to (c) who has, or immediately before the making of the special guardianship order had, parental responsibility for the child;
(e) the child himself; or
(f) a local authority designated in a care order with respect to the child.
(2) In any family proceedings in which a question arises with respect to the welfare of a child with respect to whom a special guardianship order is in force, the court may also vary or discharge the special guardianship order if it considers that the order should be varied or discharged, even though no application has been made under subsection (1).
(3) The following must obtain the leave of the court before making an application under subsection (1)—
(a) the child;
(b) any parent or guardian of his;
(c) any step-parent of his who has acquired, and has not lost, parental responsibility for him by virtue of section 4A;
(d) any individual falling within subsection (1)(d) who immediately before the making of the special guardianship order had, but no longer has, parental responsibility for him.
(4) Where the person applying for leave to make an application under subsection (1) is the child, the court may only grant leave if it is satisfied that he has sufficient understanding to make the proposed application under subsection (1).
(5) The court may not grant leave to a person falling within subsection (3)(b)(c) or (d) unless it is satisfied that there has been a significant change in circumstances since the making of the special guardianship order.