Ruth Harrison-Byrne is a partner and Head of the Childcare team at the Wilkes Partnership. She says “Protecting the safety and welfare of a child is the main objective when care proceedings are issued. The nature of the situation means it can be an emotionally charged and challenging time for all who are involved. It is essential to listen to the voice of the child during care proceedings”.
It is important that the child is given the opportunity to vocalise their wishes and feelings. They must be allowed input to decisions on where they will be placed and who they will have contact with. But how can a child’s voice be heard when an Applicant Local Authority issues care proceedings?
The Court appoints a children’s Guardian called a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) Officer. This officer is independent of the Court and the Local Authority. Their role is to represent the interests and welfare of the child and oversees plans as they develop.
A solicitor is appointed to represent the Cafcass Officer and the child in Court. If the child is deemed to have sufficient understanding and capacity, and the solicitor is satisfied of that, she/he can take instruction directly from their child client. The aim of this appointment is to accurately present the child’s wishes and feelings at Court. The judge will take this into consideration.
Introducing the child to key characters and locations can help to alleviate some of the stress the situation may cause. They may visit the court to see where proceedings will be held, or they could meet with the Judge. He/she will explain their role in making decisions about the child’s short and long term future.
When a Local Authority issues an application for a Care or Supervision Order the process can take up to 26 weeks. If any assessments are called for that timescale could be extended by the Court. Depending on their age and level of understanding, every effort is made to ensure that the child knows what is happening and has an idea of how long things may take.
Section 1 of the Children Act 1989 states that the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration of the Court. This means that the Court will only make Orders where it is absolutely necessary for the child and that there is no alternative available.
In considering the paramountcy test, the Court will work through a welfare “checklist”. This list is a range of factors which influence the need for an Order to be made and must be considered by the Judge. The checklist includes:
- The wishes and feelings of the child
- The child’s physical, emotional and educational needs
- The likely effect on the child of any change to their circumstances
- The child’s age, sex, background, and any characteristics which the Court considers relevant
- Any harm which the child has suffered or is at risk of
- How capable the child’s parents, or any other person to whom the Court considers the question relevant, is of meeting their needs
- The range of powers available to the Court under the Children Act 1989 which are relevant to the proceedings.
The Court also considers any relationships the child has, and if it is possible to keep siblings together.
Ruth continues “Whether a child makes their wishes known directly to the Court, through an appointed solicitor, or through the evidence of their appointed guardian’s analysis report and recommendations, every effort is made to hear the child’s voice during proceedings. Putting their best interests and welfare first is paramount and carers/parents can be assured that if they are facing legal care or private law proceedings, their child’s voice will be heard”.
Ruth and her team understand how difficult it can be when faced with Court proceedings and the prospect of being separated from a child. We have advocates who are trained and experienced Children Panel Accredited Solicitors who will ensure that the child or carer/parent are represented fully. Proceedings will be carried out fairly and justly, with matters being challenged where necessary. Our care team is available to answer any questions.