With the current Government guidance about what we should be doing to stay safe constantly updating, this is a very stressful and uncertain time.
Parents, family members and children in care or involved in court proceedings involving the local authority may feel particularly worried about what the effects might be on their cases, and for children in care in terms of their living arrangements, education, and contact with their family.
To help, we have put together a guide on ‘frequently asked questions’ during the Coronavirus pandemic.
I am involved in care proceedings at the moment – what will happen to my case?
The Government has confirmed that the justice system must continue to operate during the current crisis. All care proceedings are extremely important. Your case will carry on and your family will not be forgotten.
However, there are changes to the way that most court hearings will take place and there may be changes to the dates of some cases.
Your solicitor will be able to explain what might happen in your case and to take your instructions on what you think should happen.
As long as the government advice remains for people to stay at home and avoid public places, except where it is completely necessary, most court hearings may take place ‘remotely’. This means that your hearing may have to take place by video link over the internet or by telephone.
At Howells we have the capabilities to ensure clients can still attend a court hearing online, using video conference software.
A very small number of hearings may still have to take place at court. Your solicitor will talk you through whether this is likely to be required in your case and will discuss with you how this will work and any concerns you have.
I have received a letter from children’s services saying that they want to have a pre-proceedings meeting – what should I do?
Despite the current health crisis, the law says that local authorities must get involved and investigate if they have ‘reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives, or is found, in their area is suffering significant harm’. They must take action if, following their investigation, they believe that a child has been or might be harmed.
The local authority may decide to start the ‘pre-proceedings process’. The local authority will write to you first setting out their concerns and inviting you to a meeting.
This is where there is a meeting with you and your solicitor, via telephone, to try to come to an agreement about what needs to happen to manage the concerns that the local authority have about your child/children. Parents who receive these letters are automatically entitled to legal aid to cover advice from a solicitor and for the solicitor to attend the meeting with you.
My child is in care – the usual rules
There is likely to be a huge worry for families where a child is in care. At a time when you may most want to be with your loved ones it may become more difficult to do so.
When a child is the subject of a temporary care order or a full/final care order, the local authority has parental responsibility for them which it can use ‘to the exclusion’ of the parental responsibility of parents and others. This means that it can make decisions about the child’s contact with their family members even if these are not agreed by the family members.
However, the law says that when a child is in care, the local authority must allow the child reasonable contact with their parents and, in certain situations, other family members. Local authorities also have a duty to promote contact between a child and their siblings unless it is not consistent with their welfare. Arrangements should be set out in the child’s care plan.
A local authority can refuse to allow contact with a child in care if they are satisfied that it is necessary to do so in order to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare AND it is an extremely urgent situation. In these circumstances, this refusal of contact can only last for up to seven days. The local authority must immediately explain in writing why contact is suspended, for how long, and that the decision can be challenged in court.
It may be that other arrangements may need to be made to allow children to see their parents, their brothers and sisters and other family members. This may include contact taking place with ground rules in place at the carer’s home, the children are with family members or through skype. However this will be decided on a case by case basis and your solicitor will be able to advise you about this.
If the local authority considers that it needs to extend the refusal beyond seven days then it will require a court order authorising it to do so. The local authority has to make an application to the court and this application should be sent to parents with parental responsibility and any others with parental responsibility.
Parents, children, and in some circumstances other family members, can make an application to the court for an order about contact. When such an application is made, the court can make ‘such order as it considers appropriate’.
But can I still see them during the Coronavirus outbreak? What does all this mean for me and my child/children?
There are likely to be a lot of problems facing social workers in making arrangements for children in care to have contact with their families. On 23 March 2020 the government introduced new measures requiring people to stay at home except for in very limited circumstances.
It is unclear whether contact with children in care will be an exception to this general rule. Even if there is some kind of exception which would allow contact with children in care, some individual contact centres have already closed, and any that remain open are likely to be very short staffed. Foster carers and other carers may have to self-isolate because they or someone in their household has become unwell or is vulnerable.
Local authorities are going to have to look at each case individually and decide what can happen in relation to contact. A number of local authorities have taken a decision that what amounts to “reasonable contact” at the moment, and for the duration of the 3 weeks of Stay at Home, is more restricted contact than face to face, and that contact will take place by video calls, and sometimes phone calls. This is in response to the present Government guidance.
It is worth immediately considering alternative ways to see your child as face-to-face is not the only way to have contact, and you may feel your child and you and your family could be kept safer by using other arrangements. You might consider spending time with them over Skype or similar video facilities, and on the phone. It might also be possible to send emails and letters/cards. Although this is far from ideal, it may be that in the individual circumstances of your case and in light of the current situation, a court would consider this to be reasonable and to meet your child’s welfare needs, at least on a temporary basis.
What if I don’t think the contact offered is okay?
If you feel that what contact is being offered to you is not “reasonable”, or even amounts to no contact at all, then you should talk to your solicitor. What you may be able to do depends on the legal situation you are in:
If your child is in the care of the local authority and you are still in care proceedings then arrangements for contact can be dealt with within the care proceedings and it may be possible for you to make an application for contact within the care proceedings. You should discuss this with your solicitor.
If your child is the subject of a final care order (the care proceedings have finished) then you may be able to make an application to the court for contact with them.
If your child is in the care of the local authority without an order, usually based on your consent (sometimes referred to as ‘section 20’) then you may have additional options and you should consider taking legal advice.
The situation with sibling contact, and contact with other family members, is slightly different and a solicitor will be able to discuss this with you.
Although there are going to be changes in the way that hearings happen, courts are still operating.
Legal aid is available for applications for contact with children in care, or if you receive an application from the local authority asking the court to authorise a refusal of contact between you and your child.
Legal aid is not, however, automatic like it is for care proceedings and pre-proceedings meetings. The Legal Aid Agency will require information about your finances and about the circumstances of your case before granting legal aid.
You should contact Howells if you have any queries regarding care proceedings, guardianship or any Family Law matters, by either telephone or email. Email [email protected], visit our website or call us:
Sheffield: 0114 249 66 66
Barnsley: 0122 680 51 90
Rotherham: 0170 936 40 00
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