What is a Letter of Instruction? Its Purpose and Importance in Care Proceedings

What is a Letter of Instruction? Its Purpose and Importance in Care Proceedings

If a local authority becomes concerned about the welfare of a child and believes they could be at risk due to the level of care they’re receiving at home, they may initiate care proceedings. These proceedings will determine what’s in the best interests of the child and what measures should be taken to keep them safe and well. Those measures could include removing the child from the family home and placing them in foster care.

Care proceedings are often complex and lengthy. According to the UK government website, it can currently take up to 26 weeks for the family court to reach a decision, with this timeframe extended in more complex cases. Care proceedings will typically hear from multiple parties, including social workers and if necessary, third-party experts.

What is the purpose of a letter of instruction, and why is it an essential document in care proceedings?

Care proceedings can have enormous ramifications for the family unit, particularly if it’s decided that the child shouldn’t remain in their home. For that reason, the court requires a great deal of information from the local authority when deciding on the best course of action.

The social worker assigned to the case will be required to submit an assessment which reports to the court vital information such as how the child is being parented, details of any immediate risks and the quality of the care they are receiving.

In some cases, additional expert input will be required to provide opinion and insight on matters that fall outside of the social worker’s own area of expertise. Examples of third-party experts include clinical psychologists, forensic psychologists, child psychologists and psychiatrists, as well as medical experts such as radiologists, ophthalmologists, and paediatricians.

If that input is required, the local authority can commission an expert during the pre-proceedings stage (with the agreement of the parents) or apply to the court for permission to commission an expert during the first hearing. The court can also request a specialist assessment be carried out. In all instances, the expert will be formally appointed and briefed via a letter of instruction.

The letter of instruction is prepared by the local authority. This letter sets out the details of the case for the expert, key areas of concern and questions that the expert must answer. It’s a vital document because it outlines the specific information required of the expert – information that is critical to the court’s understanding of the child’s situation.

What key components should be included in a letter of instruction?

The letter of instruction is a comprehensive document with several key components. These include:

  • Case information: Basic case details including the applicant and respondent information, the court where the case is being heard, the case number, the date of the appointment with the expert and the date by which the expert’s report is required.
  • Summary of proceedings: This outlines the application made to the court and the orders being sought by the local authority. This section may also specify if the child currently lives at home, is in foster care or in kinship care.
  • Issues: A summary of the key issues before the court and the assessments already conducted.
  • Background to proceedings: Brief background information regarding the case, along with a copy of certain documents already filed with the court.
  • Instructions: This section outlines what is required of the expert and the questions to be answered. For example, a child psychologist may be asked to determine how much the child understands about their situation and what an appropriate level of contact between the parent and child would be. A forensic psychologist could be asked to assess whether a parent can keep their child safe, while a radiologist may be asked to describe the likely cause of an injury to the child.
  • Report format: Any specific requirements for the report to the court, such as a maximum page count.

How does the use of letters of instruction improve communication?

A letter of instruction is a detailed document which clearly lays out the particulars of the case and the information that is required from the expert assessment. It can help the local authority to add context to their case by adding expert testimony regarding the child’s situation, the risks they face, the impact of their present environment and recommendations for next steps.

The letter of instruction also clearly stipulates the areas in which the appointed expert should focus their attention, ensuring there is no overlap between experts or the local authority’s own assessment.

Many of our family law solicitors are members of the Law Society’s Children Panel, the Family Law Panel and Resolution Accredited Specialists. If social services become involved with your family, we can help you navigate care proceedings to achieve the best possible outcome. Get in touch with us to find out more.

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