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What To Expect at a Court Hearing

COURT PROCEEDINGS: FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS BY PARENTS

1. What happens in court?

When the Local Authority (Children’s Services) has started court proceedings, there will be court papers. These papers will include the Local Authority’s reasons for making an application for a ‘Care Order’. The Local Authority will need to deliver these papers to you. They can either be sent to you directly or they can be delivered through your solicitor.

If you have received the papers directly, you should speak to one of our Child Care solicitors immediately.

  • The court papers will give you a court date for your first hearing. It is important that you attend this hearing.
  • You need to give your views to the court. The Judge may ask you to provide statements responding to the initial court papers you have received.
  • The Judge is aware that in the court papers received from the Local Authority, he will only have received one side of the story. The Judge will want to hear your position.
  • A solicitor will normally draft these documents with you. A solicitor can guide you as to whether you need to obtain any extra supporting evidence to help your case.
  • The Judge may ask you to provide a ‘Schedule of Carers’ which is a list of family members you wish to put forward to care for your child, in the event that your child cannot live with you. It is important that you put names forward by the date required; this is so that you have ‘back up options’ if the child cannot live at home.
  • At the first hearing, an important decision that the court may be asked to make is; where should the child live whilst the court proceedings are taking place? The court proceedings can normally last for up to 26 weeks (6 months) – this can be extended in exceptional circumstances. The Local Authority may ask that whilst proceedings are ongoing the child should be removed from their home, placed with family or alternatively go into foster care. You may not agree with the Local Authority. You will need to give your views to the Judge as to where you think your child should live during the court process.
  • At the first hearing, the court will need to consider what evidence it needs so long term decisions can be made about your child. This can include parenting assessments (assessments which look at the parenting abilities of the mother and father) and sibling assessments (assessments that look at the relationship between any brothers and sisters). The Judge may order statements from other professionals involved with the child such as the nursery, school or Health Visitor. The Judge will want a full picture of how your child has been cared for. 
  • The court will adjourn the first hearing so that all of the information can be gathered.
  • There may be further ‘review’ hearings if the Judge is needs to make further directions about the evidence he needs to make a final decision about your child.

There will normally be an ‘Issues Resolution Hearing’. This is a hearing which will take place after all the evidence has been gathered. It should normally be completed by week 20 into the court proceedings. At this hearing, the court will want to know what the parties agree on and what the parties disagree on.

At this hearing, it may be the case that you do not agree with the Local Authority’s plan. For example, the Social Worker recommends your child remain in long-term foster care, and you believe this is the wrong decision.  If this is the case, the matter will go to a final hearing.

A final hearing is where the Judge will hear from all parties, and all relevant witnesses. The Judge will then make his final decision.

2. Will I get legal aid to cover the costs of a solicitor?

If you are a parent, you should automatically qualify for legal aid which allows you to have representation at the court hearing. If you are a family member, we will assess whether you qualify for legal aid.

3. Who will attend court? Who is the Children’s Guardian?

At the first hearing, the parents of the child will attend with their solicitors. The Social Worker should also attend, and there will be a solicitor for the Local Authority.

Your child will be separately represented and have their own solicitor. Your  child will also have a Children’s Guardian. This person is appointed by the court to represent the interests of your child. The Children's Guardian is independent from the Social Worker. The Children’s Guardian will undertake important tasks such as: visiting your child, speaking your child and obtaining their ‘wishes and feelings’ (depending on their age), speaking to the parents, observing contact where appropriate and speaking to the Social Worker. The Children’s Guardian will normally write an initial report and a final report to the court outlining what they recommend for the child.

4. My case is going to court, and the Social Worker is not looking at all the evidence. The Social Worker is focusing on the negatives. Will the Judge listen to me? Can I show him all the positives?

Yes, a Judge will want all relevant evidence from you as to the positives in relation to your parenting.

This evidence can come in many forms.

Around the time of the first hearing, the Judge will want statements from you which outline your response to the Local Authority’s allegations and also what you would like for your child. The Judge asks to see this as soon as possible, as he wants to make sure he is conducting the case in a fair way and that he has heard both sides of the story.

Attending relevant courses can really impress a Judge and can show that you want to be a good parent to your child. Please see Question 5 below which goes through what help you can get to better your case in court.

You might feel that the Social Worker has given a one-sided view of your parenting, but there are lots of other professionals involved with your child  who can see you are a good parent. The Judge may want to see evidence from these people.

The evidence needed will differ from case to case, however common examples are:

  • Statements from the parents.
  • Statements from family members.
  • Statements from professionals involved with your child such as the school, Health Visitor and Midwife.
  • Police evidence such as interviews and statements. 
  • Letters from a GP for the parents.

The court may feel it is necessary to have specialist assessments. Examples of this can include:

  • Specialist Psychological or Psychiatric assessments: The court might feel that the parent is suffering from an underlying medical or mental health issue which is effecting their care of the child. The court can order specialist assessments by psychologists or psychiatrists to diagnose the problem and also make recommendations as to counselling or therapy.
  • Parent and baby foster placements or residential placements: This is where the court orders a parent to go into a placement to test whether or not they can meet the needs of a child. You can go into a foster care home or alternatively a supported residential placement where you will received 24/7 help in caring for your child. If you do well in the placement, the support will be reduced. These normally last for a minimum of 6 to 12 weeks.
  • Specialist medical information: This can come in many forms, for example, a report from a Pediatrician . It can be particularly important when injuries have been found to a child.
  • An Independent Social Work assessment: Where the court takes the view that the current Social Worker has not done a proper assessment, or there are gaps in the assessment, the court can order a new assessment to be done.
  • DNA testing: This can be ordered when paternity of your child has been raised as an issue.  
  • Drug and Alcohol testing: This can be done where the Social Worker alleges you have problems with drugs and alcohol and the court needs to know whether this is in fact the case.

You should be aware that the court will not automatically consider making orders that all of these assessments take place. There are special rules around the court ordering these assessments. A solicitor from our Child Care team will be able to advise you as to whether there are any specialist assessments that are appropriate in your case.

5. Is there anything I can do to make my court case better? What help can I get to show I can be a better parent?

You should cooperate with all court directions. You should attend court hearings, assessment sessions with the Social Worker, appointments with the Guardian, and meetings such as ‘Looked After Review’ meetings.

If during the court proceeding, your child is moved out of care, you will normally have ‘contact sessions’ where you get to spend time with your child. The Judge likes to see that you have attended as many contact sessions as possible. It is important for your child to see you consistently.

If you have had difficulties in caring for your child, you should try to address these problems. The following may or may not apply to your case:

  • Parenting courses: This can show a Judge that you are committed to improving your parenting skills. There are courses such as the Triple P programme (Positive Parenting Programme), Family Links programme, and Incredible Years programme. Please speak to your solicitor  if you need help being referred to such programme.
  • You might be suffering from depression, anxiety or other mental health issues which can impact on your care of  child. It is important for you to see your GP. Your GP to make recommendations as to what support you need.
  • You may have had difficulties in the past which has impacted on your care of a child. For example, you may have experienced a traumatic experience such as a bereavement or an assault. The Judge may want to see that you are trying to address the root cause of your problems. Again speak to your GP or a counsellor.
  • If you have suffered from domestic abuse, you may wish to attend Domestic Abuse programmes or counselling. There are courses such as the Freedom Programme, Parenting through Domestic Abuse, the Power to Change Programme and Recovery Toolkit. Please speak to your solicitor or Social Worker if you need help being referred to such programmes. You can self-refer to these courses online.
  • The Social Worker may ask you to attend anger management programmes. Your GP is a good starting point to access anger management help.
  • If drugs or alcohol is a problem in your case then local drug and alcohol agencies can provide you with support. A Judge may be impressed if you can provide evidence of your engagement, for example, a letter from the agency showing your attendance.

6. Can the children go to live with family, surely that is better than foster care?

Where a child cannot be cared for by a parent, the Local Authority must consider if the child can be cared for by a family member. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, adult brothers / sisters and other family members are all very important people and can be very capable of caring for your child if you are unable to.

The Local Authority will do assessments of family members put forward to see if  they are suitable to care for a child.

Assessments can take time to complete. The Local Authority always need to consider placing the child into the care of the family member as soon as possible. Each case is different – if you are concerned about the Social Worker’s decision making, please speak to your solicitor.

7. If my children go into foster care, will they stay together – they are brothers and sisters and I believe they should not be separated?

The Children Act 1989 provides that when children are placed into foster care, the Local Authority should make arrangements for the siblings to live together.

There is statutory guidance which the Local Authority should follow in  relation to sibling groups.  This guidance states that being able to live with siblings is an important factor for a child who has been moved into foster care.  Your child may be going through many changes so living with their siblings can be important to help them settle.

If this has happened to you, contact a member of our specialist Childcare Team on 01905 721600, as you need to ensure the Social Worker is following the law. 

 

 

Team members

Zahra Manji
Partner, Head of Children in Care Team
Worcester
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