The court process and what to expect
The court process
If the local authority children’s services department working with your family decides to begin care proceedings, you will be entitled to your own lawyer. Your lawyer will be your primary source of information on the court process.
Cafcass will also be made aware of the children’s services’ court application, and we will allocate one of our social work-qualified family court advisers (FCAs) to work with your child. When our FCAs represent children in care proceedings they are known as the child’s ‘guardian’. The guardian will then appoint a lawyer, who they will give instructions to on behalf of your child.
Children’s services will also have their own lawyer.
You will often hear these three groups referred to as the ‘parties’. The judge will listen carefully to all parties and will take great care to treat everyone fairly.
The parties will be ordered to attend court where the judge will listen to each of them These appointments are called 'court hearings’ – each court case will be made up of multiple hearings. The most common types of hearings in care proceedings are:
Case Management Hearings (CMH)
The first hearing you will attend is likely to be a CMH. The court will review the application and consider whether any temporary or ‘interim’ orders are needed to keep your child safe whilst the wider court case is ongoing. If the parties cannot agree on interim orders, then a separate hearing might be needed before the judge can make a decision on this.
The CMH will also be used to make sure everyone is taking the right steps to keep the court case on track. If there are any gaps in the evidence or any issues that might prevent a full hearing from going ahead at a later date, the judge will give ‘directions’ for how these must be resolved. It is very important to comply with all the court’s directions as failure to do so could cause delay for you and your child.
The CMH will also be used to set a date for the next type of hearing, the Issues Resolution Hearing.
Issues Resolution Hearing (IRH)
The IRH will happen later in proceedings when children’s services have submitted their final evidence. The parties will give their views on this evidence and on the final care plan for your child.
If you, the guardian and children’s services are all in agreement about the plan for your child then the proceedings may be able to end at this point. This is likely to be an emotional experience where you are asked to think carefully about your position. The court will take great care to treat you fairly during this hearing.
If the parties cannot reach agreement, then the judge will want to know what the unresolved issues are. They will set a date for a final hearing where they will hear ‘oral evidence’ then rule on the unresolved issues.
Final Hearing - At the final hearing each of the parties will usually give ‘oral evidence’. This means standing in the witness box and answering questions. These questions will be asked ‘under oath’ - meaning you will be asked to either swear on a holy book or to make a promise to tell the truth. If you are required to give oral evidence, your solicitor should help you prepare for this. Take your time when answering questions, it is important that you are given the opportunity to clearly express your point of view.
The guardian will listen carefully to your evidence, and to what children’s services have to say. They will usually give their evidence last, having taken into account everything the other parties have had to say. The guardian’s final recommendation is important – however the final decision will be made by the judge. They will consider all of the evidence, including your child’s wishes and feelings, and will give their decision in what is called a ‘judgment’.
What to expect from Cafcass
When Cafcass becomes involved with your family, you will receive a welcome letter from us. You will also be notified of who your child’s allocated guardian is and how to contact them.
The guardian will work closely with your child throughout the proceedings and appoint a lawyer on their behalf. Your child will be at the heart of everything the guardian does.
It is the job of the guardian to amplify the voice of your child and to make sure their wishes and feelings are heard. The guardian is also expected to look carefully at the care plan created by children’s services, and to form their own independent view on whether the plan is the right one.
In order to reach a view on the care plan the guardian will:
- Spend time seeing and engaging with your child (including babies). They may send your child personalised letters or keep in touch via text and email. They will work creatively with your child to understand their wishes and what makes them unique. They will work hard to understand how any harm or trauma your child has experienced impacts on them day to day and in the future.
- The guardian will also want to speak with you, and any other parents or carers involved with your child. This will usually happen before the Case Management Hearing and again before the Issues Resolution Hearing when children’s services has filed its final evidence and care plan.
- The guardian will have regular conversations with your child’s social worker and with other professionals. This may include foster carers, residential staff and your child’s independent reviewing officer (if one is involved). These conversations may be face to face, by email or by phone.
The guardian will do all that they can, along with the court and other professionals, to make sure that your child’s proceedings are concluded within 26 weeks wherever possible.
At the end of the court proceedings the guardian will carefully explain the outcome to your child. If they are too young to understand the outcome then a ‘later life letter’ will often be written, which can be kept for the child to read when they are older.
Feedback from a father in public law proceedings
“I hadn't a clue how to explain to my daughter what was going on in the family and why certain decisions had been made. The guardian gave me tips and advice which was really helpful and worked a treat. They did explain their recommendations, he didn't like all of her recommendations as it meant the it (court process) took longer but I understood why she recommended it and looking back, it was the right thing.
They couldn't have done anything different, everything she did was great and she nailed it.”