Legal Planning Meetings
This chapter was significantly updated in January 2019 to provide more specific guidance around this key process, including:
- Convening Legal Planning Meetings;
- Outcomes of Legal Planning Meetings; and
- Issuing of Proceedings.
1. Purpose of Legal Planning Meetings
Legal Planning Meetings are an essential part of the process for dealing with public law children's cases under the Public Law Outline.
A Legal Planning Meeting should be held to discuss the way forward in a particular case, where an application for a legal order may be required. This can include:
- Following an application for an Emergency Protection Order when consideration is being given to an application for an Interim Care Order;
- When it is clear that the protection or welfare of a child cannot be achieved by agreement with the parents, or the security of a legal order is necessary to ensure the viability of a plan for a child, or the existing court order is not providing adequate protection for the child;
- Where it is thought that a legal order may be required in order to assist in the permanence planning for children, whether that is a return to the family or to achieve permanence elsewhere.
At the meeting, a decision should be made in principle about whether the Threshold Criteria have been met. The local authority should then decide, based on a robust analysis of the level of assessed risk, whether:
- It is in the best interests of the child to provide a further period of support for the family with the aim of avoiding proceedings; or
- Whether proceedings should be initiated immediately.
The meeting should also identify any evidence gaps, clarify whether additional assessments will be required, and consider what would be a suitable draft Care Plan for the child.
A Legal Planning Meeting is an opportunity to discuss a case fully, and to consult with colleagues to ensure that children are the subject of active case management and that appropriate legal action is taken when required to promote and safeguard the welfare of the child.
The role of the local authority legal adviser is to advise about the legal possibilities for achieving the desired aim and to give a view about the quality of the evidence available.
In order to enable a full discussion to take place, the following must be available:
- Relevant assessment/s;
- An up to date Chronology;
- A Plan or a clear indication that options for a plan have been considered;
- A Genogram.
The issues to be considered at the meeting will include the following:
- The reasons for the concerns and the evidential basis for establishing Significant Harm and the Threshold Criteria;
- Why Care Proceedings are necessary - what is their aim, objective and purpose?
- The steps already taken to clarify the issues of concern - i.e. Assessment, as well as other medical and other expert involvement;
- Whether the requirements of the Pre-Proceedings Checklist set out in the Public Law Outline have been met, including a written notification to the parents about the areas of concern and their right to seek legal advice. See Care and Supervision Proceedings and the Public Law Outline Procedure;
- When will the Assessment and other supporting documentation be available, if not already?
- The action/decisions already taken and where the decisions were made e.g. Strategy Discussion/Meeting, Child Protection Conference, Core Group meeting;
- The proposed Care Plan for the child, including the proposed placement and any cultural, language and ethnic issues, the need for Parallel Planning, consultation with parents and the wider family, whether any family members are available to care for the child on an interim or permanent basis, if so whether the required checks have been made, the proposals for contact;
- How the proposed Care Plan is to be achieved, including where appropriate arranging a date for the case to be presented to the Adoption Panel;
- Whether it may be appropriate to instruct any further expert assessment before the commencement of court proceedings - if so, what are the proposed remit of the instructions and the areas to be addressed, who should the assessment be done by and what are the likely timescales?
- Have there been previous Court proceedings in relation to the family? If so, what steps are required to obtain the papers in relation to the case from the Court or another local authority?
- When will the social worker's Statement of Evidence be ready?
If Care Proceedings are recommended, the Care and Supervision Proceedings and the Public Law Outline Procedure should be followed.
Any potential issues/documentation regarding parental capacity to litigate should be flagged up at the meeting.
3. Convening Legal Planning Meetings
The request for a Legal planning meeting can follow a recommendation from a Child Protection Conference, Looked After Review, a Permanence Planning Meeting, or on the request of a social worker, manager, local authority lawyer, or other agency.
Agreement to hold a legal planning meeting should be sought from the relevant Head of Service by the Team Manager. The referral then needs to be completed on Mosaic (Legal Advice/Legal Planning Meeting). Once completed, the Social Worker sends a 'Task' to their manager to review the form, the Manager then sends a 'Task' to 'Court Process Work Folder'. Please also send a PDF copy to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The referral needs to set out:
- Why you consider the children to be at risk of harm (“What are we worried about?”/danger statements);
- Why you consider this warrants potential legal action (e.g. what work has been done to prevent escalation to the legal arena?
- What is the evidence that we have met the threshold for initiating proceedings? Threshold is defined in the Children Act 1989 s31, 2:
A court may only make a care order or supervision order if it is satisfied:
- that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; and
- that the harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to:
- the care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him; or
- the child's being beyond parental control.
Within your referral to the Court Process team, the following documents need to be included:
- Most recent assessment and plan (CIN,CP or LAC Plan);
And where relevant, also:
- Signs of Safety mapping exercise;
- Safety planning meeting minutes;
- The children's wishes and feelings;
- Section 47 and other significant documents;
- Parenting assessments;
- Reports from partner agencies;
- Any independent assessments;
- Any previous judgements.
Submitting documents with your referral is essential to ensure that the legal representative (whose services we are charged for) has time to review the material ahead of the meeting in order to provide the most accurate and useful advice. Where no papers are provided it can be expected that the invited solicitor may request for the meeting to be rescheduled. This is particularly pertinent for initial LPMs.
An LPM will be arranged by the Court Progression Business Support Officer. These are usually on Wednesday morning for SACP and Thursday mornings for FRT although there is potential for flexibility in urgent cases.
4. Legal Planning Meetings
When coming to the LPM, the documents submitted with the referral must be brought. The relevant Head of Service will chair the LPM; also in attendance will be the allocated social worker and their manager, a representative from the legal department, the Court Progression Officer and the Court Progression Business Support Officer.
The meeting will follow this outline (see Local Resources).
The timing of an LPM is likely to be determined by the urgency of court proceedings and the need to allow sufficient time for necessary preparation.
Notes of Legal Planning Meetings should be circulated to all attendees. These are legally privileged and should not be made available to parents or other parties in any potential proceedings without the permission of the chairperson or Director. All legal planning meetings will be minuted by the Court Progression Business Support Officer. The action of these meetings will be circulated immediately after the meeting and a full record of the meeting will be circulated within 3 days of the meeting.
4.1 Review/Subsequent Legal Planning Meetings
The meeting should consider whether further Legal Planning Meetings are necessary and if so, when. It may be that new information emerges which requires a change of plan for the child. In this event, the Legal Planning Meeting must be reconvened in order to consider the implications for the legal plan.
5. Outcomes of Legal Planning Meetings
One of the following outcomes will be made at the LPM:
- The threshold criteria is not met and therefore proceedings will not be issued;
- The threshold criteria is met, but there is time to work with the family in order to avoid care proceedings and the welfare of the child/ren permits this. The case will then either continue to be worked outside of the legal arena, with regular reviews agreed, or it may follow the pre-proceedings route. A Letter Before Pre-Proceedings will be sent to the family inviting them to a meeting to explore further support and action. Legal advisors should be present. This work will be regularly reviewed and proceedings can be issued if concerns increase or the NOI process is not effective;
- The threshold criteria is met, but there are immediate protection issues that require the case to by-pass the pre-proceedings process and issue care proceedings. In this case, an Issuing Proceedings Letter will be sent to the family.
6. Pre-Proceedings Notice of Intent (NOI)
If the LPM decision is to undertake Pre-Proceedings work, a Notice of Intent letter will need to be sent to the family (see Letter Before Pre-Proceedings). This letter needs to outline the concerns of the Local Authority (danger statements) and what needs to happen in order for the Local Authority not to initiate care proceedings (safety goals). The letter will also recommend services and assessments that the Local Authority wants to undertake which may help the Local Authority safeguard the children. For example, for a mother with suspected learning difficulties, a cognitive assessment would be commissioned to determine her level of cognitive functioning and seek recommendations about the best way to present information to her. For all recommended assessments, information about the availability of experts and timescales for this assessment should have been sought ahead of the meeting. Information on preferred experts and letters of instruction is available in the Local Resources.
The letter will advise parents to seek independent legal advice (this is one of the few circumstances in which legal advice is free to parents) and alongside the letter, a list of solicitors within the local area should be provided for their consideration. A list of local family solicitors is available in the Local Resources.
The letter will invite the parents and their legal representatives to attend a NOI meeting. This is a meeting chaired by the Team Manager where the letter is discussed in detail and agreements made about whether the parents are able to engage with any interventions or assessments recommended within the letter and a timetable for this. A written agreement to this effect should be signed by all parties at the meeting.
This letter will need to be completed and sent within 1 week of the LPM and a meeting with the parents and their legal representatives arranged within a further 2 weeks.
If there are issues of domestic violence or there are concerns about the parents attending a meeting together, separate meetings for each parent or any other person with parental responsibility should be held.
At the end of the meeting a review meeting date will be set to consider progress - this should be set for no longer than 12 weeks following the first meeting.
At the review meeting consideration will be taken as to whether to step down this case from NOI or extend the NOI period for a limited time, or whether to seek further legal advice about making an application to court.
At any time during the Notice of Intent if the situation changes or the parents refuse to engage with the process you should consider with your manager whether a request should be made for a review LPM.
REMINDER – if a Notice of Intent letter is being issued to a family, the social worker should be mindful that this means that threshold has been met to initiate care proceedings and therefore the matter could have been put before the court to consider whether the children should remain in the parents care as they are at risk of significant harm. It is very important to be proactive about progressing any actions needed to be taken during this process.
7. Issuing Care Proceedings
In order to issue proceedings, there needs to be agreement that threshold is met (which is determined by Merton's legal team) and the decision to issue is made by the Head of Service. This decision is normally made within a Legal Planning Meeting.
Following the decision being made, a statement and care plan need to be completed with these templates, see Local Resources.
When issuing care proceedings, the social worker will be asking the court to consider the care plan for the child/children. At an initial hearing, the social worker could be asking the court to:
- Allow the children to remain at home in the care of their parents while necessary assessments are undertaken (the court is obliged to consider the 'no order principle', which states that the court must make the least intrusive order necessary, and no order, if that would suffice);
- Request an Interim Supervision Order. This will also last for the duration of the proceedings;
- Request an Interim Care Order. This will confer PR on the LA for the duration of the proceedings until the Final Hearing.
Once the statement and care plans have been completed, they will need to be reviewed by the social worker's manager, who will send them to the Court Progression Officer for quality assurance. The care plan will also need to be signed by the Head of Service before all documents go to Legal, who will also review them and then issue the application to the court.
7.1 What the Different Orders Mean
An Emergency Protection Order (EPO)
An emergency protection order gives the local authority parental responsibility (PR) for the child/ren named in the order. That parental responsibility is in addition to the parental responsibility that the child's parents or any other person has. The order is initially limited to eight days and is to protect a child in an emergency, where he or she is otherwise likely to suffer significant harm. There is no right to appeal for the parents. An EPO can be extended for a further 7 days if necessary.
While the order is in force, it authorises:
- The applicant to remove and accommodate the child;
- The prevention of the child's removal from hospital, or other place where they were accommodated before the order was made;
- It also operates as a direction for any person, in a position to do so, to comply with any request to produce the child to the applicant.
Interim Care Order (ICO)
The court has the power to make 'interim care orders', these are care orders made during the life of the care proceedings and they are temporary until the next interim care order is made, or discharged, or a final order is made.
A care order is an order placing the child in the care of a designated local authority. The local authority must receive the child into its care and provide accommodation and maintain the child for the duration of the order. Effectively, the court is handing over responsibility for the child to the local authority although the parents' PR is not affected.
No proceedings can be brought with regard to a child who has reached the age of 17. A care order lasts until a child is 18 years old unless it is brought to an end earlier.
Interim Supervision Order
This places the child under the supervision of the local authority (LA) on a temporary basis while the circumstances are assessed and until the court can make a final decision about what is best for the child. The LA does not share parental responsibility with the parents, but should monitor and support the family. A supervision order conveys upon the local authority a duty to 'advise, befriend and assist' the child.
Social worker's are advised to seek help, if required, with writing statements or care plans.
If the social worker is asking for removal (ICO or CO), a foster placement will need to have been lined up in time for the first hearing. A discussion with the Access to Resources Team (ART) will need to take place and the placement referral form completed on Mosaic.
If requesting a Supervision Order, the social worker will need to consider a written agreement for the parents to sign up to (i.e. no unsupervised contact with a perpetrator or agreeing to unannounced visits etc.). The template for these can be found in the Local Resources.
7.2 During Care Proceedings
The first hearing attended will be an Initial Hearing to consider any orders that have been applied for. There will then be a Case Management Hearing (CMH) within a couple of weeks, during which the timetable for the proceedings will be mapped out.
If interim orders have been applied for, the court will want to hear all parties' views on the specific orders. Usually this is done through submission by each parties' legal representatives although occasionally the court may wish to hear oral evidence from the allocated social worker, so preparation is essential. Advice around preparing to give evidence can be found in the Local Resources.
The CMH considers what needs to happen in the case to make sure that a final hearing can be held within 26 weeks. This will usually be centred on what further evidence will be required, e.g. expert assessments. This hearing will set the timetable for the rest of the case, including setting dates for final evidence to be filed. All the dates must be noted for evidence to be with legal so that evidence can be filed on time. The social worker will need to plan to complete their court work a week ahead of the deadline so that it can be reviewed by their line manager, the CPO and legal before filing. The Re: BS analysis needs to be considered within the evidence. There is an example of what this needs to cover in the Local Resources.
Permanency Care Planning Meetings (PCPM) will take place during proceedings. These consider what the long term plan for the child will be. It is important that these meetings consider any parallel planning as well.
If the care plan for a child is likely to be adoption, a Child Permanency Report (CPR) will need to be written so that a decision by the Agency Decision Maker (ADM) can be made. This is a lengthy report so adequate time will need to be scheduled to complete it. To prepare for the ADM meeting, the social worker will need to read the ADM guidance and make sure all required documents have been completed. These documents are available in the Local Resources. Alongside the CPR, you will also need to complete the Annex B document will need to be completed so an application for a placement order can be made, see Local Resources.
The social worker must continue to undertake their own assessment of the parents' ability to care for the child/children even if there are other assessments ongoing. Regular meetings with the parents to discuss what is worrying and what efforts they are making to change should take place so that the Court can be provided with final evidence around actions undertaken whilst proceedings have been ongoing. The other assessments that are completed in proceedings are important but as the social worker is an expert witness too, these cannot just be relied upon.
If at any time during the proceedings the social worker is unable to file certain evidence on time, legal services must be up to date with a reason and an expected date that the evidence will be filed. If this is not done, the court will hold non-compliance hearings and they can and will make wasted cost orders against the Local Authority.
7.3 Final Orders Made by the Court
A care order will give parental responsibility to the local authority to make decisions about the children, and this may involve plans for the long-term care for the children, education, health, long-term foster care, or a planned return of the children to their parents after a set period. Although parental responsibility is not removed from those that held it previously, the local authority's parental responsibility is overriding. Before making any decisions the authority should take into account the wishes and feelings of the child/ren and parents/significant others.
The court has the power to order, along with a care order, provision for contact with the child (contact with a child in care), a parental responsibility order and orders with respect to guardians.
Once a final order has been made, the court will no longer be involved with the care plan or reviews. This will be a matter for the Independent Reviewing Officer.
Special Guardianship Order
Special Guardianship orders can be made when it has been assessed that the parents cannot care for the child, but there is someone else in their network who is willing and able to and who has a relationship with the child. A special guardianship order allows the special guardian to exercise parental responsibility to the exclusion of others with parental responsibility (except another special guardian), subject to certain statutory exceptions. The order lasts until the child is 18.
Child Arrangements Order
The court may also make a child arrangements order setting out where, and with whom a child is to live (including conferring PR on the named person), and/or the arrangements for a parent to spend time with the child. An order of this kind could be made along with a supervision order or on its own, but can only be made to specific close family members.
Any application for a placement order is likely to be made in conjunction with a care order. A placement order allows the local authority to place a child for adoption. Prior to being able to apply for this order, the social worker will need to have had approval for the plan from the ADM (as discussed above).
This is an order which places the child under the supervision of the local authority. The grounds under which the court may make a supervision order are similar to that of a care order. However, the child will return home with the parents or whoever the child is to live with, but under the supervision of the local authority. In this case, the local authority (as supervisor) does not acquire parental responsibility.
The basic duties of the supervisor are to advise, assist and befriend the child and to take steps to give effect to the order. Other powers of the supervisor will depend on the contents of the order.
A supervision order may contain the following requirements:
- A requirement for the child to comply with the directions of the supervisor on certain specific matters;
- with the consent of any person with parental responsibility for the child and with whom the child lives, a requirement for this person to take certain steps or to comply with the supervisor's directions;
- A requirement that the supervised child submits to specified medical or psychiatric examination;
- Provided certain conditions are satisfied, a requirement that the supervised child shall submit for such treatment concerning his mental health as may be specified.
The broad structure is approved by the court, but implementation is left to the supervisor. If the supervisor's directions are not complied with, the supervisor can only seek a variation, extension or discharge of the order. The directions cannot be directly enforced either by the supervisor or by the court.
Unless it is ordered for a period of less than a year, a supervision order will come to an end after one year from the date it was made. The supervisor can apply to the court for the order to be extended, or further extended, beyond the period set by the court or the first year. The social worker should schedule a review meeting 3 months before the SO is due to expire so that if an extension needs to be sought, there is time to do this.
Along with a supervision order the court can award a parental responsibility order, orders with respect to the guardians, a child arrangements order, a prohibited steps order, a specific issue order, and financial relief. Merton has a Supervision Order Policy and a Supervision Order plan which can be found in the Local Resources and should be submitted alongside the final care plan.