Before sending a ‘letter before proceedings’ the Local Authority social services department may invite you to a meeting to consider if your children should be made subject to a Child Protection Plan or a Child in Need Plan. You should always attend those meetings but before the meeting takes place you should seek advice from a solicitor who is experienced in these sorts of cases and you may be entitled to free legal advice. Your solicitor might also be able to attend those meetings to support you and to ensure that the Local Authority is acting appropriately in making their decisions, especially in relation to the terms of any Written Agreement that they may ask you to sign.
Here’s what you need to know:
You will receive a letter before proceedings
Your local authority is very worried that your child is not being looked after properly or is out of control. So they are thinking about whether to ask a court if your child should be taken into care. In the next few days, you will get a “letter before proceedings” from your local authority. You may have already got one. This letter explains why they think your child is not being looked after properly. It also tells you to come to a meeting to talk about the way you look after your child. If you do not follow the instructions in this letter, you may have to go to court and your child could be taken into care.
The process – Overview
Letter before proceedings Local authorities send a letter before court proceedings when they are worried about how a child is being looked after. It is often sent after the local authority has drawn up a plan for your child to be kept safe and well cared for but they are still concerned. The letter is a final notice for parents. If you don’t follow its instructions, you may have to go to court and your child could be taken into care.
The letter asks you to come to a pre-proceedings meeting with your local authority to talk about the situation. At the meeting, you will talk about how to change the way you look after your child and how the local authority can support you to do this. If you agree some changes, these will be written down in a formal agreement that you and the local authority have to follow. If you don’t agree, your local authority will probably ask the court to take your child into care.
Keeping to the agreement
You must keep to any agreement you make at the pre-proceedings meeting and the local authority should keep to any agreements they make too. You will probably be asked to go to review meetings to check you are keeping to the agreement.
Going to court
If you don’t keep to the agreement or there are still serious or new concerns, your local authority will apply to a court to start care proceedings. You will have to go to court – possibly several times until the court makes its decision about your child’s future.
If your local authority thinks your child’s situation is urgent, they may ask the court to make a decision about your child sooner, without going through all the steps above. At the end of this process, one of these things will happen.
- Your child stays with you under a new agreement about how you will look after them.
If you keep to the agreement, your child should stay with you. If you don’t keep to it, you may have to go back to court and your child could be taken into care.
- Your child moves in with a friend or family member.
This can be for a short time to help you make changes to your life so that you can look after your child better: or it can be permanent.
- Your child goes into care.
If you can’t agree how you will change the way you look after your child and there’s no suitable friend or family member, the court will tell your local authority to find a place for your child to live. This will be either with a foster family or in a children’s home. This could be for a long time, possibly many months, until the court decides whether your child can live with you or needs to live with someone else. If your child goes into care, the local authority will continue to work with you so that your child can return home, but a time will come when decisions have to be made about the future of your child. If your child cannot return home to you the other options are that they stay in long term fostering; go to live with a friend or another family member under a residence order or special guardianship order, go to live in a children’s home or be adopted.
Letter before proceedings – Essentials
What you need to know
The letter before proceedings is a formal letter. It asks you to come to a meeting with your local authority to talk about the care of your child because they are worried that your child is not being looked after properly or is out of control. The letter explains why your local authority thinks this. If you don’t agree with the local authority, the meeting is your opportunity to say why you disagree. The local authority has already tried other ways to make sure your child isn’t at risk of harm – like through your child’s social worker. If you don’t come to the meeting, your local authority is very likely to go to court about your child. This could mean he or she is taken into care. Remember, you are entitled to free legal help.
What you need to do
Read the letter carefully to make sure you understand what the local authority has said it is worried about and what they want you to do to make things better. Make an appointment now to see a solicitor. Take the letter with you as this will help the solicitor to understand the situation better. If there are things you don’t understand, the solicitor can explain them. The solicitor may go with you to the meeting with the local authority and help you get your views across. You won’t have to pay for the solicitor’s help if you have parental responsibility. You may also want to take a friend or supporter with you, to help remember what was said and what you need to do. If at any stage you do not understand something, you MUST tell your solicitor or the social worker. Check when the meeting is and make sure you can go. If you really can’t make it, then contact your child’s social worker straight away to arrange a different date. The phone number to call is on the letter.
Who has parental responsibility?
- The child’s mother;
- The child’s father if he is or was married to the mother at any time after the child’s birth or if he is registered as the child’s father on the birth certificate if the registration took place after 1st December 2003, or who have acquired parental responsibility by formal agreement with the mother or by court order;
- Step parents who have acquired parental responsibility by formal agreement with both parents or by court order;
- Anyone else with a residence order or special guardianship order in respect of the child, such as another family member;
- Anyone appointed as the child’s guardian after the death of a parent provided the appointment has taken effect.
Don’t forget:If you ignore the letter before proceedings, your local authority will probably ask a court to take your child into care. If you’ve got any questions about the letter before proceedings that you would like to ask your solicitor, keep a note of them. If at any stage you do not understand something, you MUST tell your solicitor or the social worker. Make a note of it.
Letter before proceedings – The details
Why has my local authority sent me a letter before proceedings?
If you get a letter before proceedings, it’s because your local authority thinks your child is not being looked after properly or is out of control, and they are considering asking the court if they can take your child into care. The letter explains why they think this. In every case, the reasons will be different. Sometimes it might be to do with your lifestyle. Sometimes it is because of your child’s health or because they are not going to school. Focus on what the letter tells you – not on other things that you think might be problems.
What happens if I don’t follow the instructions in the letter?
If you don’t go to the meeting that the letter asks you to go to, your local authority will almost certainly apply to the court to start care proceedings.
What are care proceedings?
Care proceedings are a formal process where a local authority asks a court to have your child taken into care. this would mean they would live with someone else. This can be for just a few weeks or until the court makes a final decision, which could be many months, and; gives the local authority “parental responsibility” for your child – this means that the local authority gets the legal right to make decisions about your child’s life, like whether they get medical treatment or where they go to school.
If I get a letter before proceedings, does it automatically mean my child will be taken into care?
No. It gives you a last chance to show your local authority that you are willing to agree to make changes to the way you look after your child. If you don’t take this chance, then your local authority will almost certainly start care proceedings.
Why are local authorities allowed to do this?
Local authorities have a legal duty to “safeguard, protect and promote the welfare of children” in their area. If a local authority thinks that a child is at risk of harm or neglect, it has to take action. Your child’s social worker will explain why your local authority thinks your child is not being looked after properly or is out of control and what you can do about it. They will suggest things you can do to change the way you look after your child. If your local authority thinks you are not changing the way you look after your child, it will send a letter before proceedings.
What do I have to do next?
You must go to the meeting your local authority has asked you to attend. The letter tells you when and where it is. At the meeting, you can have your say about how your child should be looked after and put your side of the story across. Read carefully what your local authority has said in the letter about why they think your child is not being looked after properly, and decide whether or not you agree with them. If you agree, think about what you could do to change. If you don’t agree, you will need to say why. Before that meeting, you also need to get help from a solicitor and ask them to come to the meeting with you.
Why do I need a solicitor?
You need a solicitor for two reasons: 1. Your solicitor will listen to what you say and help explain your point of view to your local authority. 2. The law about when a child can be taken into care is very complicated. Your solicitor can explain it to you and make sure your local authority is following the law. At the pre-proceedings meeting, your local authority will have their solicitor with them.
How much will a solicitor cost?
Provided you have parental responsibility you don’t have to pay the solicitor for coming to the pre-proceedings meeting. This is because you can get legal aid. To get legal aid, all you need to do is take your letter before proceedings and some ID (driving licence, passport, etc) with you when you meet your solicitor. The solicitor will then apply for legal aid for you.
How do I choose a solicitor?
You need a solicitor that specialises in child care law. This is because it is a very complicated subject. So even if you have used a different solicitor in other situations, you should find someone who knows this area of the law. When you get the letter before proceedings, you should get a list of local qualified solicitors you can use. But if you don’t want to choose one of them (not all local solicitors may be on their list as it is often out of date and you don’t have to choose a local solicitor) ask Civil Legal Advice for names and contact details of other solicitors on the Law Society Children Panel. You can call Civil Legal Advice on 0845 345 4345 or visit https://www.gov.uk/legal-aid/overview You can also visit www.lawsociety.org.uk (select the ‘I need a solicitor’ tab on the right) and search for a solicitor who is a member of the specialist Law Society Children Panel.
Boyd Carter is a member of The Law Society Children Panel and is a specialist in Care Proceedings. Boyd usually deals with care cases in Essex, Berkshire and London but may be able to assist you even if you are not in those areas or your case is being dealt with in a Court in a different area.
What information will I need to give my solicitor?
Your solicitor might also ask you for other information apart from the letter before proceedings and ID – such as documents that your child’s social worker has given you, school reports or medical information. If you have the information the solicitor asks for, you should give it to them. Remember your solicitor is there to help you, so give them as much information as possible.
I don’t agree with what the letter says – what can I do?
If you disagree with what the letter says, you will have a chance to say why at the meeting. Tell your solicitor what you disagree with. They can help you explain your point.
Do I have to tell anyone about this?
No, but it’s often best to talk to your child’s other parent or a friend or family member you trust about the fact that you’ve had this letter. It can be difficult to talk about it, but they can support you and listen to you. They can also help you come up with ideas of how to change the way you look after your children. Remember, getting a letter before proceedings does not mean your child will automatically go into care. You need to show to your local authority that you are willing to work with them to take steps to change the way you look after your child.