This page will give you basic information about when children’s services can start legal proceedings in the Family Court. It will help you to understand:

  • What should happen before children’s services start court proceedings
  • The different kinds of court orders and decisions that the court can be asked to make
  • The court hearings that will take place during the proceedings.

The information here refers to the court process in England and Wales (Wales has some differences in law and guidance to England, so if you’re not sure please check with Family Rights Group about this). Information here does not apply to Scotland or Northern Ireland.

If you haven’t been able to sort out the things that children’s services are worried about and there are still concerns about your child’s safety and well-being, children’s services may consider applying to court for an order to remove your child from your care.

If social workers have told you that children’s services will be starting court proceedings, then you should seek advice from a solicitor immediately. As a parent, you will be eligible for legal aid to cover the costs. This means you won't have to pay for the legal advice and representation that you get. Our Working with a solicitor page explains how to find a solicitor and work with them.

What should children’s services do before starting legal proceedings?

Unless it is an emergency situation, children’s services should normally have taken the following steps before starting court proceedings:

  • Held a legal planning meeting: Children’s services will usually hold a legal planning meeting with their legal department to discuss applying for a court order. This could be a court order that allows children’s services to remove your child from your care. They will take advice about whether there is enough evidence to justify asking the court to support a plan to remove your child. If children’s services are saying your child should be removed they will have to show the court that the situation is so serious that your child needs to be removed straight away in order to be safe.
  • Sent a ‘letter before proceedings’ and arranged a ‘pre-proceedings meeting’: Children’s services should send you (and anyone else who has parental responsibility) a letter before proceedings setting out their concerns and inviting you to a pre-proceedings meeting. At this meeting, it should be made clear what the local authority needs to happen for your child to be safe and to avoid court proceedings. The social worker should also discuss with you whether any members of your family can support you in raising your child safely, or if any family members could care for your child if you are unable to. Please go to the Children's services page for more information about pre-proceedings letters and meetings.
  • Sent you a letter of issue: If children’s services start court proceedings they should send you a ‘letter of issue’ to tell you court proceedings are being started. If they don’t, they should still tell you they are planning to start proceedings. Even if they don’t do this, you will still find out in papers from the court (called a ‘notice of hearing’) that court proceedings have been started.

What happens in an emergency situation

In an emergency or crisis, there are different arrangements that children’s services (and other agencies) can make for your child. Not all of these involve going to court.

Click on the boxes below to find out about the different kinds of emergency arrangements that can be made for your child. If social workers are discussing any of these arrangements with you, then you can:

  • Call Family Rights Group's free advice line on 0808 801 0366 (open 9.30am to 3pm Monday to Friday, excluding bank holidays)
  • Or seek legal advice from a solicitor who specialises in children’s law (check with Family Rights Group’s advice line or on the Working with a solicitor page for information about whether in your situation legal advice from a solicitor will be free).

Voluntary accommodation/arrangement

If you have parental responsibility for your child, social workers can ask you to agree to your child being provided with accommodation by children’s services. This is known as ‘voluntary accommodation’ or a ‘section 20 agreement/arrangement’. On this website we use the term ‘section 20 voluntary arrangement'. Section 20 is a particular part of the exclusion requirement which contains many of the laws about supporting families and protecting children. In Wales it is section 76 of the Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014 that deals with voluntary accommodation/arrangements for children.

Only someone who has parental responsibility for your child can agree to this voluntary arrangement. If the arrangement is put in place, your child will become a ‘looked after child’

Good practice guidance from judges says that it is a good idea if there is a written agreement explaining the voluntary arrangement and that this should:

  • Be in plain language so it is clear and easy to understand. It should be translated into your first language if you are not confident reading English
  • Make clear that you can remove your child from the accommodation at any time
  • Tell you where your child will be living and what the arrangements are for contact between you and your child
  • You should also be given time to look through the agreement and take independent advice about it and the plan for your child.

If children’s services believe that your child needs urgent protection but it has not been possible to reach an agreement with you about how to keep your child safe, they may decide to start court proceedings to ask for an urgent court order (an emergency protection order) to protect your child. If there isn’t time to go to court, they may speak with the police to see if they can use their police protection powers instead.

You will find more information about police protection and emergency protection orders in the next coloured boxes.

Important: If a placement with foster carers who can go on to adopt your child (‘foster for adoption’) is being suggested, you should immediately see legal advice. You can:

  • Call Family Rights Group's free advice line on 0808 801 0366 (open 9.30am to 3pm Monday to Friday, excluding bank holidays)
  • Or seek legal advice from a solicitor who specialises in children’s law (check with Family Rights Group’s advice line or on the Working with a solicitor page for information about whether in your situation legal advice from a solicitor will be free).

Police protection powers

This is not a court order. It is a power the police have to protect your child in an emergency where there is no time for children’s services to go to court. The police must believe your child will suffer serious harm if they don’t use the power.

When the police use this power it means that for up to 72 hours (3 days) they can:

  • Remove your child from your care to somewhere else with the help of children’s services – for example to foster carers or to the home of a family member
  • Stop a child being taken away from the place where they already are – for example, a hospital.

The police have to tell children’s services as soon as possible what has happened, where your child normally lives and where your child is now.

The police must tell you what actions they have taken and why. They must also tell you what they plan to do next and allow your child to have contact with you if they think this is in your child’s best interests.

Other people that the police must let your child have contact with (again, if it is in your child’s best interests) include:

  • Anyone else who has parental responsibility
  • Anyone your child was living with immediately before being removed
  • Anyone that a court has ordered a child should see.

If after 72 hours, children’s services don’t think it is safe for your child to return home then they can:

  • Seek an agreement for a section 20 voluntary arrangement to provide accommodation to your child (see previous box) OR
  • Start court proceedings and ask the court to make an order to allow children’s services to arrange for your child to remain away from your care.

Emergency Protection Order

If social workers believe that your child is in urgent need of protection, children’s services can ask the court to make an Emergency Protection Order (EPO). An EPO gives children’s services parental responsibility. This includes giving them the right to:

  • Take your child into care
  • Prevent you taking your child back home.
  • See your child if you or someone else with parental responsibility has refused to allow this without a good reason.

Here are six important facts about an EPO:

  • An EPO can last for up to 8 days, but can be extended once for another 7 days
  • An EPO can be requested at a court hearing that you don’t know about (a ‘without notice’ hearing). However, the law and government guidance say this should only happen in very exceptional circumstances
  • If you are not told about the hearing, then the hearing must be fully recorded
  • A parent (or anyone else who has parental responsibility or has been caring for your child) who was not present when the EPO was made can apply to the court for the EPO to be removed (or ‘discharged’)
  • When a court makes an EPO, the court can say what kind of contact should take place between the child and a parent
  • With your agreement, the court can also make an ‘exclusion requirement’. This allows the court to order a person that children’s services believes is a danger to your child to leave your home. This can be done instead of your child having to leave.

Child Assessment Order

This is a court order that allows your child’s health or development to be assessed. It can also be used to assess the way that your child has been treated.

A Child Assessment Order allows children’s services to find out enough information to decide what action (if any) they should take to support or protect your child.

For children’s services to get a Child Assessment Order they need to show the court that:

  • They have good reason (‘reasonable cause’) to believe your child is suffering (or is likely to suffer) significant harm
  • They need to carry out an assessment to find out whether your child is suffering (or is likely to suffer) harm
  • It is unlikely they will be able to carry out the assessment if the order is not made. For example, because you are not likely to agree to someone assessing or examining your child.

A quick guide to care proceedings

Care proceedings is the name for the legal proceedings in the Family Court that start when children’s services make an application for a care or supervision order because they are concerned that a child has suffered significant harm or is at risk of suffering significant harm.

In care proceedings, children’s services can ask the court to make an order to protect your child - for example, an interim or final care order or supervision order.

  • A care order is an order that places your child in the care of children's services and gives them parental responsibility for your child. It allows children’s services to make decision about what they think the best arrangements are for your child, even if you do not agree
  • A supervision order gives children’s services the power to ‘supervise’ or monitor your child and how you are caring for your child. It does not give them parental responsibility for your child.

When children’s services start care proceedings they may ask the court to make an interim care order or an interim supervision order. These are temporary orders. They can be made until the time comes for the court to make a final decision about what the best arrangements are for your child.

The arrow below shows the main stages involved in care proceedings.

Click on the coloured boxes in the arrow to read more about what happens at each stage and what decisions the court can make.  

Care proceedings Application sent to court issued Notices and court directions sent out Case Management Hearing (CMH) Issue Resolution Hearing (IRH) Final Hearing (CMH)

Care proceedings - Frequently Asked Questions

The FAQs (frequently asked questions) below will take you through court process in more detail and explain some of the different types of order that can be made during care proceedings.

Social workers have applied for a court order. What should I do first?

It is very important that you get legal advice from a solicitor who specialises in children’s law immediately.

Go to the Working with a solicitor page for information about how to find a solicitor. This also explains how a solicitor can help you. You may be upset or angry or feel that nobody is listening to you, so it is vitally important that you have someone to represent you and explain what is happening.

Can I get free legal advice during the care proceedings?

Any parent is entitled to legal aid to cover the cost of a solicitor representing them in care proceedings.

Your solicitor should help you understand what the court papers say, what will happen in court and what decisions the court can make. They (or someone on their behalf) will come to court with you and represent you during court hearings.

Go to the Working with a solicitor page for information about how to find a solicitor.

Who will be involved in the care proceedings?

Every person who has parental responsibility for your child is automatically involved in care proceedings. Each of these people is called a ‘party’ to the proceedings.

The child who the proceedings are about is also a party and will be allocated a Children’s Guardian. This is an independent social worker who does not work for children’s services. The Children’s Guardian will give the court information, check the plan(s) that children’s services have made for your child and give the court an opinion about what is best for your child. Together with the solicitor that they have chosen, the Children’s Guardian will represent your child during the care proceedings. The Guardian should be the independent voice of your child in court.

Other people can apply to join the proceedings and become a party to the proceedings. This includes wider family members such as grandparents or aunts and uncles, for example. They should seek advice from a solicitor or contact Family Rights Group's free advice line if they need further information about this.

I am a young father but I don’t have parental responsibility for my child. Will I be involved in the care proceedings?

Only fathers who have parental responsibility for their child are automatically involved as a ‘party’ to the proceedings and see all the court papers straight away.

If you are a father but don’t have parental responsibility, you should still be told about the case by the social worker and you will receive a notice from the court telling you when the first hearing will take place. You will then be able to get free legal advice (even if you don’t have parental responsibility) and the court can then be asked to make you a party to proceedings. You can find out helpful information about your rights as a father and parental responsibility on the Young fathers page.

Do I have to involve my wider family in the care proceedings?

It’s very important that your family and close friends are involved at the earliest stage. They might be able to help resolve things and might be able to:

  • Support you in safely caring for your child (for example, by helping with child care, routines and household tasks)
  • Care for your child if you are unable to (either in the short term or long term).

Social workers and the court need to know as early as possible if there is anyone in your network of family and friends that can provide you with help and support, or might be able to care for your child.

If your family and friends don’t offer help until later, they might be told it is too late and your child could be removed from your family.

If your child has been on a child protection plan, social workers should already have been discussing with you whether there are any family members who can provide this kind of help. If they haven’t, then you should ask to discuss with your child’s social worker straight away.

If you’re worried about involving your family, talk this through with someone that you trust, your child’s social worker or your solicitor (if you have one). Or you could call Family Rights Group’s free advice line on 0808 801 0366 which is open Monday to Friday 9.30am-3.00pm (excluding bank holidays).

The information on the Family group conferences page will tell you about how you and your family and friends can be involved in making plans to help keep your child safe.

How long will the care proceedings last?

Care proceedings are normally finished within 26 weeks or less.

The case can only be extended beyond 26 weeks if the court gives permission for this to happen.

This permission will only be given if the court thinks it is necessary in order for your case to be dealt with fairly. It can be difficult to persuade the court that this should be the case. However, if there is a reason why more time should be taken to complete the proceedings (for example a relative comes forward late in the day asking to be assessed as a potential carer for your child) then it is important that your solicitor shares this information with the court and asks that some further time be allowed for the proceedings.

My child’s social worker says they are seeking an ICO. What does this mean?

ICO stands for ‘interim care order’. This is an order that can give children’s services the power to say where your child will live and to remove your child from your home, even if you don’t agree.

Under an ICO, children’s services will share parental responsibility for your child with you, but they will also get the power to decide how far you can use your parental responsibility and make decisions about your child.

The court can only make an ICO if it decides there are good reasons to believe your child has been (or is likely to be) seriously harmed and that an ICO is what’s best for your child.

The ICO order can remain in force up to the time of the final hearing or for a shorter period, if the judge thinks that’s what’s best for your child.

The court can also make an ‘exclusion requirement’ alongside the ICO. This can be used to force an adult to leave your child’s home if the court believes that person is a danger to your child.

My child’s social worker says that they have decided to start care proceedings to remove my child. What does this mean?

The decision about whether your child should be removed from your care is one that the court will make. The court has to look at the relevant information and evidence that is available before making a decision about whether or not your child should be removed from your care. The court has to look at whether children’s services have shown that your child has suffered, or is at risk of suffering significant harm either because of the care you provide (or are likely to be provide) or because your child is 'beyond parental control'. This is known as the ‘threshold test’.

The court also has to decide whether or not children’s services have shown that removing your child must happen to make your child immediately safe. To help decide this, the court will want to know whether, and in what ways, children’s services have already tried to work with you to improve things, or that the situation is so serious that your child needs to be removed from your care straight away.

If your child’s social worker has said that they have decided to start care proceedings, you should immediately contact a solicitor who specialises in children’s law to get legal advice. You can go to the Working with a solicitor page for information about how to find a solicitor.

My child’s social worker says that children’s services will ask the court for an interim supervision order (ISO). What does an ISO allow them to do?

An interim supervision order (ISO) does not give children’s services parental responsibility for your child. And it does not give them the right to remove your child from your care.

What an ISO does mean is that children’s services must monitor how your child is being cared for, either by you or anyone else in the family who is looking after them.

The court can only make this order if it decides that your child has suffered, or is likely to suffer, significant harm and that the ISO is the best way to help protect your child.

What is a case management hearing (CMH) and do I have to attend?

The CMH is your chance to work with your solicitor to let the court know:

  • What kind of work you think children’s services need to do before the final hearing. For example, what kind of assessments you think should be carried out
  • Which members of your family could support you or want to be assessed as potential carers for your child (if they are needed)
  • What help you would like children’s services to give to your child and to you.

It is important that you work with your solicitor before the CMH and that you go to the hearing to make sure that you are fully involved and know what is happening.

Your solicitor will need to work with you to understand what you have to say about the concerns that children’s services have and what you think about their interim (temporary) plans for your child. The solicitor will then be able to put your point of view into writing so it is understood by the court and everyone involved in your case.

What other kinds of orders can a court make to say where my child should live?

The court could make an interim child arrangements order.
This is an order stating where and with whom your child should live when the court agrees that someone else (for example, a family member) can care for your child until the final hearing.

The court could also make an interim supervision order as well, unless the court is satisfied that your child is safe and well supported without it.

If a child arrangements order is made, you would then share parental responsibility for your child with the person named in the order. The child arrangements order does not give children’s services parental responsibility for your child.

If an interim child arrangements order is made to state where your child is to live, an order may also be made to state who your child should see and when and how this should take place.

What kinds of final order can the court make at the end of care proceedings?

This table of orders shows you the different final orders that a court can make at the end of care proceedings. There is a lot of information in the table so you may want to download it or arrange to have it printed so that you can refer back to it.

Remember that care proceedings are quite a complicated process. You may want to ask your solicitor (or a trusted friend) to explain anything on this website to you. Or you can call the Family Rights Group’s free advice line on 0808 801 0366 which is open Monday to Friday 9.30am-3.00pm (excluding bank holidays).

Remember, you can also go to the Working Together pages for:

For further, detailed information about care proceedings and the final orders that the court can make, see Family Rights Group’s Advice Sheet 15: Care (and related) proceedings.