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Remote Hearings – Progress back to the Court room
Since the UK was put into lockdown in the early weeks of March 2020, and all family court hearings stopped taking place in the court room, the legal world started to receive guidance upon guidance as to how to best deal with remote hearings which were to take place with extremely short notice. The President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, issued guidance very quickly to try and help practitioners and judiciary alike as to how to best navigate hearings remotely. The guidance of 19 March 2020 was circulated around all social media platforms and the discretion within the guidance allowed for “any appropriate means of remote communication”. Thankfully at NLS, we were able to set up every national branch office with a dedicated, secure telephone line that was capable of recording so that we were able to immediately manage the remote listings that were coming through. Many members of the judiciary were grateful that we were able to assist in the initial transition to remote hearings and remote listings took place in those initial weeks without any issue. It has been impressive to see the courts, judiciary, barristers, solicitors & support staff adapt their way of working to keep the wheels of justice turning. Whilst there have been a few bumps along the way and some tension over what platforms could/should be used to host remote listings, in the main, one could say that we are now in the swing of all things remote. For our part, at NLS, having 19 branch offices has seen additional challenges in managing this transition as each court across the country has responded to remote hearings differently, exercising discretion and expressing concern in respect of their local facilities and ability to move to remote listings. This has led to series upon series of local guidance that has been disseminated to all our staff as there has been no single approach to remote… [...]
If a local authority is involved with your family, you will have a social worker assigned to work with you and your child/ren. There are different levels of social work intervention before court proceedings and these include PLO Meetings, child protection plans and child in need plans.
The Public Law Outline (PLO) is the final stage before care proceedings are issued and this meeting is usually issued when the Local Authority has serious concerns in respect of the safety and welfare of a child.
- What is the Public Law Outline?
The PLO sets out the duties local authorities have when thinking about taking a case to court to ask for a care order to take a child into care or for a supervision order to be made. This is described as initiating public law care proceedings.
- What happens if PLO proceedings commence?
The Local Authority will send you a notice of intention to commence proceedings setting out the concerns they hold in respect of your family and will invite you to attend a meeting at their offices.
- Should I attend the PLO meeting?
Yes, it is very important for you to attend the meeting.
- Can I re-schedule the meeting?
If you are unable to attend the meeting you should advise your Social Worker immediately and request that the date is changed to a convenient time.
- Who is present at the meeting?
The Social Worker will attend with the team manager together with a solicitor from the legal department. Both parents will normally be invited to the meeting together with your legal representative.
- What happens during the meeting?
The Local Authority will set out their concerns together with a plan of assessments to try and avoid going to Court. Discussions will take place as to timescales involved and in most cases, a review meeting will be fixed.
- Should I engage with the PLO process?
It is important that you work with the Local Authority and engage in the plan set out to avoid the matter going to Court
- Is legal aid available for this?
Once you have received a notice of intention to commence care proceedings you are entitled to receive free legal advice and it is important that you take a solicitor with you to the PLO meeting.
Pre-proceedings & PLO Meetings
If you have been invited to attend a pre-proceedings meeting, you have the right to have a solicitor present with you at those meetings to assist, advise and support you. The Child Care Solicitors at our firm have a successful track record and have helped families make positive changes which have eventually resulted in social services involvement being heavily reduced.
In case the Local Authority’s Social Services Department become involved with your family, we can help you through all stages of the investigations.
Sheena Donlon, Head of Care answers some frequently asked questions regarding care matters & social services
What type of court orders can be made regarding children?
If the Local Authority applies to the Court for an order due to concerns that your child is at risk of suffering significant harm the most likely type of orders applied for is either an interim care order or an interim supervision order.
What is the difference between an interim care order and an interim supervision order?
An interim care order will grant the Local Authority parental responsibility for your child and in some cases, the Local Authority will also seek to remove your child from your care and place with an alternative family member or in foster care. An interim supervision order provides the Local Authority with the duty to “advice, befriend and assist” the family during the course of the proceedings and does not give the Local Authority parental responsibility for your child.
How long will the proceedings last?
Proceedings are due to complete within 26 weeks, however, the Court can grant extensions in cases where there are high levels of complexity
If my child is removed from my care under an interim care order what are my rights to see them?
If the Court sanction removal under an interim care order the Local Authority has a duty to promote reasonable contact. In the event the Local Authority wish to suspend contact for more than 7 days an application would need to be made to the Court for this to be considered
What assessments are likely to be ordered within the proceedings?
The types of assessments ordered by the court will depend on the issues in your case. Assessments could include parenting assessments, psychological or psychiatric assessments. In some cases there may be a need for medical experts to be involved or for the children to also be assessed.
Can you refuse to engage in Court ordered assessments?
It is always beneficial to engage in the assessments as this will form part of the evidence that is considered by the Court when making long term decisions in respect of your children
What happens once all the assessment are completed?
Once all the assessments have been completed the Local Authority will prepare the final evidence setting out a care plan for the children. In the event, matters can be agreed a final order can be made by the Court, but if an agreement cannot be reached a contested final hearing will need to take place.
How long is a final hearing and what happens?
The length of a final hearing will depend on whether the matter is contested and the complexity of the case. Final hearings can range from half a day to several days or even weeks. Oral evidence will likely be heard from the professionals and experts involved in the case and having heard this the Court would balance the evidence and make a final decision.
What happens if I do not agree with the final order made?
If you do not agree with the final order you may have a right to appeal the decision but you would need to show that the Judge made a legal mistake or got the facts in the case wrong when making such a decision. You would need to apply for permission to appeal and if permission is granted a formal appeal can then be lodged.
Is legal aid available in these types of cases?
Care proceedings are non means and non merits tested and therefore public funding is available for all individuals with parental responsibility for the child/ren
With regards to appeal cases, it is more difficult to obtain funding as it is means and merits tested and therefore you have to be financially eligible as well as prove to the Legal Aid Agency there is merit in your application.
Social Services Solicitors
We are leading Legal Aid child care lawyers who can advise and liaise with Social Services on our clients’ behalf. Our social services solicitors fight in your corner to keep children at home with their family, if at all possible.
We find that the earlier our involvement in the matter, the better the results. It is crucial to seek legal advice from experienced social services solicitors at the earliest possible opportunity.
Legal Aid is available for dealing with social services provided you have parental responsibility.
To speak with one of our social services solicitors, call us on 020 3601 5051 or fill in our enquiry form online.
We are facing truly unprecedented times; a time in which the entire country is in the middle of a Public Health crisis on an unprecedented scale. Many parents have questioned the arrangements for the children to spend time with the other parent, where this has been determined by the court through a Child Arrangements Order.
Understandably, the parent with whom the child lives will be concerned about their ability to meet the requirements of the order, given the wholly unforeseen changes in the governments’ advice on a daily basis.
It is incredibly difficult in good times to come to an agreement regarding child arrangements, however, this can be significantly more challenging when the government advises voluntary quarantine practices. Below is an update in relation to the current coronavirus situation and it’s implication on child arrangement orders.
The current government guidance is that anyone who presents with a high temperature and/or a new continuous cough should stay at home for a period of at least 7 days. It is recommended that if people live with others they should stay at home for a period of at least 14 days from the first day the person displayed symptoms. It is further recommended that people who are over 70 years old or who fall into the high-risk category (those with underlying health conditions, are pregnant or have a weakened immune system) should avoid all social contact with others.
On 24th March 2020, Sir Andrew McFarlane president of the Family Division and Head of Family Justice, has provided guidance in line with the current pandemic to ensure the concerns of parents are alleviated as follows;
- When the Court makes an order in Family Proceedings, the expectation is for each parent to exercise their parental responsibility in the best interest of the children. Parental responsibility does not rest with the court.
- Each parent must act sensibly and safely when making decisions regarding the arrangements for their child and deciding where and with whom their child spends time.
- Each parent must abide by the government rule and restrictions issued on 23rd March 2020 to “stay at home”, unless shopping, going for one form of exercise a day, caring for a vulnerable person or medical need, or travelling to work where absolutely necessary; such restrictions apply to children too.
There is an exception relating to children subject to Child Arrangements Order, in that, children under 18 can move between households, “but the decision whether a child is to move between parental homes is for the child’s parents to make, after a sensible assessment of the circumstances, including the child’s present health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or the other”.
It is paramount that parents do not become critical of each other, when the resident parent considers the child’s safety and health may be compromised by allowing contact. A parent who has exercised their parental responsibility, and acted in line with government advice by not allowing contact, is able to vary the existing Contact Arrangements Order, and will not be criticised by the court or reprimanded.
It would be a reasonable expectation for the parent to inform the non-resident parent, in advance, whether by way of telephone, text or email, that contact will not be going ahead, and agree an alternative form of contact by way of FaceTime/ Skype or telephone so that the child maintains continuity of having established and maintained contact with the other parent.
Child Arrangement Order Solicitors
We must all work together and stay safe during this crisis and foster greater unity in what will no doubt be a challenging period for parents and children.
If you are having challenges in co-parenting during this time, please contact our team of family and divorce solicitors who are experienced in resolving child arrangement disputes or call on 020 3601 5051.
The statistics involving domestic abuse and children continue to be shocking – a recent BBC report highlights that calls to the NSPCC about children witnessing the most serious forms of abuse have jumped 25% in a year. It is no wonder that while the new domestic abuse bill is ‘widely supported’, charities including Bernardo’s & Action for Children do not believe the bill goes far enough to try to help children affected by abuse.
The Children Act 1989 was amended to recognise that even witnessing or overhearing domestic violence causes harm to children and is therefore very relevant when considering child contact issues. Read our blog which explains the impact of domestic abuse on children & measures that can be taken to safeguard a child.
According to a report in 2016, Women’s Aid identified that 19 children were killed by their violent fathers in the last 10 years after being granted contact by Judges in Court.
Perpetrators of abuse are often able to continue to abuse the victim through Child Contact Arrangements which put the victim at risk as well as the children. It is therefore vital that expert advice is received if you have been a victim of domestic abuse.
Kirsty Richards, Head of Family comments:
The impact of abuse on children cannot be forgotten or overlooked in the drive to develop the law and protection in place for victims of domestic abuse. As a member of the law society’s children panel, I feel very strongly about the voice of the child and welcome any discussions around the child/ren of families where domestic abuse is an issue
Family Law Solicitors
At National Legal Service Solicitors, we understand the effects of domestic abuse on children – and when domestic abuse is present, contact with children may have to be specially considered. Our advice is clear and based on many years’ experience of children, families and the law.
The most heart-wrenching part of a relationship break down is when parents lock horns in decisions relating to how much time the child spends with each parent or with whom the child should live with. A once whirlwind romance deteriorates into a barrage of hate, anger and revenge; the only thing that persists is each partner trying their utmost to prove who is to blame.
As a family law practitioner, it saddens me to see how some parents are unable to channel their energy into “acting in the best interest of the child”. How difficult must this be? One may say it is made difficult with the hostility that has been embellished within the breakdown, but I say, not at all. As parents, you must put the needs and welfare of your child at the forefront.
So what happens in situations where tensions are broiling and hate is becoming an essential element of what once was an intoxicating surge of emotions and love? Well simply, the child is manipulated into a vacuum of detest, frustration and revenge which, in the most part, emulates the emotional climate of the relationship-the extreme negative behaviour exhibited by the one parent- on a whole undermining the child’s relationship with the other parent; known as intractable hostility. Consequently, the child refuses to spend time with the non-resident parent and becomes focussed upon ensuring that the resident parent is shown “loyalty”.
It is from the intractable hostility along with the parents’ inability to distinguish the impact such behaviour has on their child which creates the avenue for Parental Alienation. Parental Alienation is seen as “a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent” . The Family Judges take serious issues with Parental alienation, as in any decision relating to child arrangement, the child’s welfare is the courts paramount consideration . Which is, as I would argue, why it is not worth to castigate or blame the other parent and rather look to what would benefit the child now and in the future. Through this lens, it does indeed appear to be the simplest of tasks, yet it is inherently blurred by the self-imposed need to maintain animosity between one another.
The most recent case worth mentioning considers the retribution a parent can face if it is concluded that parental alienation has occurred. The case of Re H (Parental Alienation) concerned a child aged 12, who lived with his mother. The parents separated in 2007, up until March 2018 the child enjoyed a vast amount of time with the father and the paternal family. However all did not remain well, and following mothers own relationship deteriorating with the father, she ceased contact and initiated children proceedings on the grounds of domestic violence against the father; several reports were prepared by the local authority alongside a report of an independent social worker- albeit all allegations were dismissed against the father.
Following expert opinion from a psychologist- who assessed both parents and the child- it was reported that the child’s presentation suggested he was “triangulated within his parents conflictual relationship and was prioritising his mother’s needs over his”, he went on to report that the child’s “lack of ambivalence made his presentation more likely to be alienation than estrangement resulting from his father’s behaviour”. In essence, Keehan J accepted the findings of the psychologist without hesitation and found that the mother had alienated the child ergo, concluding the absence of the father from the child’s life had and will cause the child harm. Consequently, the court transferred the residency to the father and made an order for the mother to have contact with the child.
It is therefore incumbent upon any parent to ensure that a child has a meaningful relationship with both sets of parents and extended family unless of course, there are serious welfare issues that simply cannot be ignored.
Family & Child Care Solicitors in Birmingham
When Parental Alienation arises, it is crucial to address the hostile parent’s behaviour as well as consider arrangements which are in the best interests of the child thus ensuring a relationship is maintained with both parents.
If you feel that you are being alienated by your partner and would like to discuss the matter further, please contact us. Alternatively, if you are being accused of parental alienation, it is just as important to have experienced representation on your side.
 S1, CA 1989
 EWHC 2723 (Fam)