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Social services and the coronavirus pandemic

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Child arrangements and coronavirus

In 2020 the world was faced with one of its biggest challenges in living history when the coronavirus pandemic hit. The UK is now ploughing through its 3rd national lockdown since the pandemic began which has resulted in families being under additional stress and many struggling with the uncertainty and unpredictability of the current situation.

Statistics show that there has been a sharp increase in referrals to social services since the pandemic began. This in turn has resulted in an upsurge of local authority applications to court in relation to children.

What is an interim care order?

Social services, often referred to as ‘the local authority’ can make an application to court to issue care proceedings if it has significant concerns that a child may be at risk of harm. The local authority can apply for an interim care order or an interim supervision order.

The court will consider whether to make an interim care order which places the child temporarily under the care or supervision of the local authority whilst care proceedings are ongoing. The court can only make such an order when it has reasonable grounds for believing the threshold criteria have been met. The threshold criteria are the facts that the local authority must prove if they want the court to make a care or supervision order. The threshold criteria is found under Section 31 of the Children Act 1989.

The local authority shares parental responsibility for the child with its parents* when there is an interim care order is in place. The local authority can however exercise their parental responsibility above that of current parental responsibility holders if it is deemed necessary to safeguard the welfare of a child. A child may remain in the care of its parents whilst an interim care order is in place or alternatively the child may be placed with a family member or in foster care.

An interim care order is usually made at the initial hearing and will last for the duration of the care proceedings. Care proceedings should conclude within a maximum of 26 weeks (around 6 months) however some complex cases can last longer.

The court will be required to make long term decisions about the child within this period. The local authority has a duty to explore all possible outcomes for the child within the care proceedings including any family members that the child could live with if it is decided that the child cannot live with either of its parents.

What is the difference between a care order and an interim care order?

At the conclusion of the proceedings the local authority may ask the court to make a final care order if it feels that the child cannot remain in the care of the parents or the parents require significant support in order to safely care for the child.

A care order lasts until the child becomes 18 unless it comes to an end earlier by the child being adopted, a child arrangements order is made or the court discharges the order

Who can discharge a care order?

An application to discharge a care order can be made by the child, the parent, the local authority or any person with parental responsibility. The applicant must demonstrate that there is a significant change in circumstances since the care order was granted and also that to discharge the care order would be in the best interests of the specific child.

If you are considering applying to discharge an order, or the local authority is involved with your family, we strongly advise that you seek independent legal advice.

*Mothers automatically have parental responsibility. Fathers who are registered on the child’s birth certificate have parental responsibility. Fathers who are married to or in a civil partnership with the mother automatically have parental responsibility and will not lose it if divorced/the civil partnership is dissolved. For further information on who else has parental responsibility visit: Parental responsibility

By Catherine Gaskell and Emma Timson, family law team