A special guardianship order (SGO) is a private law order made in the family court that appoints one or more individuals to be a child or young person’s ‘special guardian’ who they will live with on a long term basis. An SGO can also be made in public law care proceedings with an extended family member or connected person as an alternative to long term fostering or adoption.
The main aspects of an SGO are to:
- Grant the special guardian(s) parental responsibility for the child, to the exclusion of any other person with parental responsibility (apart from another special guardian)
- Give the special guardian the responsibility for day to day decisions relating to a child's care and upbringing
- Offer a long term placement to the child
- Maintain the links and relationship with the child and their birth parents.
What is a special guardian and who can become a special guardian?
A special guardian must be over the age of 18 and must not be the parent of the child in question. An application can be made on your own or jointly with another individual. Anyone can apply to be a special guardian if one of the following applies:
- You are a guardian of the child
- You have a child arrangements order or residence order for the child
- Anyone the child has lived with for at least three out of the last five years
- A local authority foster carer with whom the child has lived for at least one year preceding the application
- Anyone with the consent of the local authority if the child is in care
- You are a relative of the child and the child has resided with you for at least one year immediately pre-dating an application for an SGO
- Anyone who has the consent of each person with parental responsibility
- Anyone who has the permission of the court.
The role of the local authority
Anyone who wishes to make an application for an SGO must inform the local authority in writing of the intention to apply for an order three months before submitting the application to the court. Once the local authority receives notice of the intention to apply for an SGO they are required to investigate and prepare a report for the court to determine whether the prospective application is a suitable special guardian. The report should include key information about the child and applicant. This information will contain:
- Details of the child’s parents and whether the child has any siblings
- Details of the applicant’s family composition and circumstances
- The applicant’s parenting capacity
- The wishes and feelings of the parents and child
- The relationship a child has with other family members and the arrangements for the child to maintain a relationship with family members
- An assessment of how such order would need the child’s long term needs compared to any other order available to the court
- Whether any support services are available to the applicant, child or parents.
The local authority may assess whether there are any support services available however, if the child is not or was not in the care of the local authority, there is no automatic entitlement to an assessment for support services. If not, it is possible to request an assessment for support services. The support services may include:
- Financial assistance
- Training for the special guardian to assist with meeting the needs of the child
- Assistance with new or existing contact arrangements between the child and their family members
- Counselling, advice, information and access to support groups
- Therapy services
- Respite care.
Limitations of an SGO
Whilst a special guardian is able to make day to day decisions about the child’s care and upbringing without the need to consult others with parental responsibility, a special guardian will need to obtain the consent of all persons who have parental responsibility for big and important decisions. Examples of such include:
- Changing the child’s surname
- Putting the child up for adoption
- Taking the child abroad for more than three months
- If the child wants surgery for reasons other than improving health.
If you cannot obtain consent from all those with parental responsibility, you can apply to the court for permission to make such a decision.
How long do special guardianship orders last?
An SGO will remain in place until the child turns 18 years of age and cannot be varied or discharged before that time without the permission of the court. An application can be made to the court before the child turns 18 to vary or discharge the order but the court will only grant such an application if there has been a significant change in circumstances since the SGO was made. Varying an order will change the terms of the order and discharging an order will remove the order completely and the child will return back to their parents.
It is important to seek legal advice before any order is finalised to ensure you are aware of your legal obligations. At Stephensons we can assist in the following ways:
- We can advise on the merits of issuing an application to court
- We can assist in issuing an application to the court
- We can represent you at any court hearing