We have specialists in this field across Dorset and Somerset, and can provide you with advice about any difficulties involving your children, following the breakdown of your relationship or marriage.
We understand that the end of a relationship can be an extremely stressful and emotional time, even when parents are able to separate in an amicable way. There can often be differences of opinion about where your children should live, and how much time they should spend with either parent. If you are unable to resolve these differences between you, we can offer advice in respect of making an application to court for a range of orders under the Children Act/the Children and Families Act. This allows the court to make orders about matters concerning your child(ren) that you have been unable to sort out between you. The court can make 3 main types of orders:
- Prohibited steps order: If one parent objects to something the other parent is doing in relation to your child(ren), he or she can apply to the court for a prohibited steps order. If the order is made, it will stop the other parent doing the specific action described without first asking the court for permission.
- Specific issue order: If one parent disagrees with a specific part of your child(ren)'s upbringing, e.g. choice of school, the other can apply to the court for a specific issue order.
- Child arrangement orders: These are used to record the amount of time that your child(ren) spend with each parent and the detailed arrangements for those periods. In some cases, the court can still make a shared residence order, as long as the child(ren) spend(s) a significant period of time with each of you.
You should always bear in mind that the court will start from the question of 'what is in the best interests of the child(ren)?', and will normally assume that children have a right to spend time with both their parents – as has been described in the Minnock/Ethan Williams cases in recent days.
We also have a team of accredited specialists, working closely with local authorities ('social services') and other professionals, to assist in matters where children are the subject of care proceedings.
Many of our team are members of the Law Society's Children Panel, meaning that they can represent children directly (or via their court-appointed guardian).
Local authorities have to tell parents (and others with parental responsibility) about their concerns for children, as long as the child's immediate safety enables them to do so. If you have received a letter stating that there are concerns about your child(ren), we may be able to offer you legal aid so that you can have advice and assistance in relation to these issues. It is very important that you take legal advice if you receive a letter of this nature, as you may be able to avoid matters going to court by working with the local authority.
If your case goes to court, there are a variety of orders that can be made immediately:
- Interim care orders (ICO): An order than can be made by the court before a final hearing, (a final hearing is when all of the evidence is gathered and put before a judge and a final decision is made about your child's future). It gives the local authority parental responsibility, which means they are able to make decisions in relation to the child, such as their living arrangements, without seeking the parents' permission first. An ICO can last for up to eight weeks and can be renewed every four weeks after that. As final hearings can often take a long time to organise, the idea is that an ICO would bridge the gap whilst the final hearing is being listed.
- Interim supervision orders (ISO): An order by which the local authority must assist and befriend the parents and children. They do not have parental responsibility for the child, but are there to offer help, support and guidance to the parents in relation to their parenting. Under an ISO the local authority cannot remove the child from the parents care.
- Emergency protection orders (EPO): This enables a child to be removed to a place of safety or to be kept where he or she can be provided immediate short-term protection. EPOs will only be granted where it is considered that the child is in 'imminent danger' and that the order is necessary and proportionate to the level of risk posed. The court will also apply the principle of whether any order is better than no order at all. An EPO can be made for eight days in the first instance, and extended for a further seven days after that. When the order expires, the child must be returned or care proceedings commenced.
These orders can only be made if the court believes that your child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, and the harm, or risk of harm, is connected to the care the child is receiving, or the child is 'beyond parental control'. The local authority only has to establish 'reasonable grounds' and 'likelihood of harm' to get an interim care order. This type of order can also be described as a 'holding position', whilst other enquiries are made about your child.
If a care order is made, your parental responsibility ('PR') for your child is shared with the local authority. Care orders can allow children to be removed from their parents but the local authority has a duty to consider other family members who may be able to care for your child, before they consider placing your child with foster carers. It is also usually the goal of the local authority to ensure that children can return to live with their parents in the long-term if they are removed. When a care order has been made, the local authority has to ensure that children spend time with their parents or carers, and can arrange contact with other family members in some circumstances.
If a supervision order is made, the local authority will be under a duty (through an appointed supervisor) to:
- Advise, assist and befriend your child
- Take reasonable steps to give effect to the order
- Consider whether to apply to the court to change or end the order – if the supervisor feels it is no longer necessary or is not being complied with
Georgina Bacon talks about the issues facing separated parents when taking a child abroad on holiday.