Sometimes, clients come to a first meeting already aware of a the legal terms and principles that might apply in their case. This can be helpful if it means they already have an idea of what might be possible or realistic. However, sometimes it can lead to confusion rather than clarity.
Every area of law has its own jargon and children law is no exception.
Below are few terms that could be useful for a parent involved in a children case to understand.
The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass). This is a Government Agency which looks after the interests of children involved in family proceedings. It works with children and their families and advises the courts on what it considers to be in the children’s best interests. Cafcass only works in the family courts. Its duty is to safeguard and promote the welfare of children going through the family justice system.
Cafcass Safeguarding Letter
When a children application is made to the family court, a Cafcass officer will write and send a letter to the court before the first court hearing. It provides the results of safeguarding checks Cafcass carries out and highlights any child welfare issues. Before writing the letter, the Cafcass officer will speak to the parents and ask for their views on the application being made and any worries they might have.
Child Arrangements Order
A family court order that defines with whom a child is to live. It can also define how often and for how long the child will spend time with their other parent (or other person).
Child Inclusive Mediation
This is mediation which directly involves the child themselves. The mediator will meet with the child to gauge their opinions and feelings. It seeks to ensure the child’s “voice” is heard when issues relating to them are in dispute and being discussed by their parents. It can be especially important that a child’s voice is heard when the parents have different views on what the child feels about things.
Child in Need Plan
A Child in Need Plan is drawn up by a Local Authority when its initial investigation into a family finds that a coordinated response is needed to ensure that a child’s needs can be met. A “child in need” is a child who is considered to need extra support or services to help them achieve ‘a reasonable standard of health or development’. The Plan must identify any resources or services needed to achieve the planned outcomes within the agreed timescales.
Child Protection Plan
A ‘step up’ from a Child in Need Plan, this is instigated when a Local Authority identifies that a child is at risk of significant harm. There will be an initial Child Protection Conference to determine whether a Plan is needed. Many parties can be involved in a Child Protection Plan, including a child’s school, health professionals, social worker, and parents.
In particularly complicated or difficult children cases, the family court can request that a children’s guardian (someone trained in social work and in working with children and families) is appointed. The children’s guardian is an independent person who is there to keep the court focused on what is best for the child. They will appoint a solicitor to act independently of the parents and solely on behalf of the child as the case progresses.
Family Assistance Order
A family court order which requires somebody to provide short term (usually six months) support to a family. Unusually, this order can only be made if the family agrees to it. The assistance can be provided by a Cafcass worker or a social worker from the local authority.
Local Authority (aka children’s services or social services)
The local authority is responsible for making sure all children and young people in their local area are kept safe by the people who care for them. They can instigate Child in Need or Child Protection Plans (see other definitions) and can be ordered to produce section 7 or section 37 reports within children court proceedings. Ultimately in very serious cases they can apply to court for care or supervision orders.
A Mediation Information & Assessment Meeting or MIAM is an initial meeting with a mediator which a parent attends on their own. It normally lasts about an hour and will give the parent an opportunity to tell the mediator about their situation and the issues that need to be decided. The mediator will describe the mediation process. In most cases it is a requirement to have attended a MIAM before being allowed to submit a children application to court.
A family court order which prohibits a person from molesting another ‘connected’ person (usually a family member). The order usually prohibits that person from harassing, pestering, intimidating, threatening or actually using violence against the other person. Breach of this order is an arrestable offence with a maximum prison sentence of 5 years.
Parental responsibility means all the rights, duties, powers, and responsibilities that a parent has in relation to a child and his/her property. A person or the people with parental responsibility can make decisions about a child such as the medical treatment they receive, who they will live with, and what school they will attend.
Mothers have parental responsibility by default. Fathers will have parental responsibility if they are named on the child’s birth certificate or are married to the mother. If they don’t have Parental Responsibility in that way, they can apply to the family court for an order granting it to them.
Prohibited Steps Order
A family court order to prevent a parent from doing something the other parent does not want them to do. A common type is where one parent is stopped from moving abroad with the child. The court will be guided by the Welfare Checklist (see below) when deciding whether to make the order or not.
Section 7 Report
The family court can order Cafcass or the local authority to investigate all the circumstances of a family and advise on future arrangements for a child. This can include considering the wishes and feelings of a child. The reporting officer will meet with the parents and children, perhaps on several occasions. The report is prepared as part of court proceedings and will have a big impact on how the court determines the case.
Section 37 Report
The family court can order a local authority to produce this report when the court becomes concerned about the welfare of a child in a case. The local authority has to investigate whether it should take steps to help protect the child by applying for a care or supervision order.
Separated Parents Information Programme (SPIP)
The family court can order parents to attend this course as part of children proceedings. The course is focused on helping parents understand how to put their child first following a separation, even when they are in serious disputes with their former partner. Clients have found this course to be genuinely very worthwhile.
The family court can appoint someone as a Special Guardian to take on responsibility for day-to-day decisions relating to a child’s care and upbringing. The Special Guardian will have Parental Responsibility and can use it even to the exclusion of the parents. Special Guardians are usually appointed for children who cannot live with their parents but who do not need to be adopted. Special Guardians are often wider family members such as aunts or grandparents. There are special provisions as to who is allowed to apply to become a Special Guardian.
Specific Issue Order
A family court order that determines an important issue (of parental responsibility) that parents can’t agree on. For example, the court may be asked to determine which school a child should go to.
When contact between a parent and their child requires supervision by a third party to ensure the child is safe. Often this takes place in a child contact centre.
Under the Children Act 1989, where a court is going to make a Child Arrangements, Prohibited Septs or Specific Issue order (or Special Guardianship Order) , its decision must be guided by the following specific circumstances: (a) the ascertainable wishes and feeling of the child (b) his/her physical, emotional and educational needs (c) the likely effect on him/her of any change in his/her circumstances (d) his/her age, sex, background and any other characteristics which the court considers relevant (e) any harm which he/she has suffered or is at risk of suffering (f) how capable each of his/her parents, and any other person in relation to whom the court considers the question to be relevant, is of meeting his/her needs (g) the range of powers available to the court.