9.1 First hearing – Case Management Hearing/ Directions hearing

This is a short hearing to make plans for how and when the case is going to be decided. The court will make directions to get all the information it needs and to allow everyone involved to have their say by making a statement in writing or providing evidence. This might include saying that certain assessments of the parents or children should be carried out. Where there is more than one of these hearings they are called “further case management hearings”. 

At every stage, it’s really important to stay on top of what your solicitor is doing and make sure that you tell them clearly what you want them to press for. It’s always best to put everything you want them to know in writing so that you can refer to it at a later date in case you disagree with something your lawyer has done (see 8). If you are representing yourself, ask the court to give directions about how you can be involved in the advocates meeting which usually takes place before each court hearing. You are entitled to take part in this but often you are not informed this is happening. 

The court will make directions about what steps need to happen next and everything decided in court should be in the court order which you should get a copy of. 

In order to start court proceedings, CS have to make an application to the court for a Care or Supervision Order, and they must hand in certain documents to the court and send copies to everyone who is involved in the case. These documents should include a social worker’s statement giving the history of what they claim has happened up to now, and their reasons for going to court. There should also be what’s called a threshold statement which says on what basis they want to get a care order (i.e. what is the alleged harm caused to your child and what you have or haven’t done about it), and the plan they propose for your child. If any assessments have been done of you or other family members by this time they should also be given to the court and to you. You have the right to ask CS to disclose any other records they have on you (e.g. notes from meetings you have had with a social worker) – if they refuse to disclose these your lawyer should ask for them in court. 

If Children’s Services want to remove the children immediately and you don’t agree, there will be a contested removal hearing (see 9.2). If you agree for example that the children can stay with a relative, an Interim Care Order (ICO) will confirm this. Under an ICO, Children’s Services have shared parental responsibility with you and they decide to what extent you can use your parental responsibility (e.g. to make decisions about your child’s health care, go to school meetings, etc). Insist on as much involvement as possible so you stay in your child’s life. You still hold parental responsibility and are entitled to attend all medical and school appointments unless a Judge has ordered otherwise 

An ICO can also order that a named adult should stop living with you, if they think the person is a danger to the children. They cannot impose this on you, you have to agree for it to happen; if you don’t agree, the judge might decide to remove your children from you. Think carefully, especially as domestic violence is now the major reason children are removed from their mothers (see 13). 

At this stage, the court will appoint a Children’s Guardian. This is a social worker from CAFCASS who is appointed by the court to represent your child during the proceedings. They are expected to read all the court documents and will meet you and your child (sometimes together, sometimes separately). It’s a good idea to ask to have someone the children trust sit with them when the Guardian speaks to them. This can stop any misunderstanding at a later date about what the children may or may not have said. Use the Guardian as an opportunity to explain your side of the story; you should ask a family member or friend to be with you when you speak to them, or to speak to them separately from you if they are reliable and you think it’s a good idea. You are allowed to record these meetings.

Reports provided by the Guardian are often deferred to by the court on issues such as breastfeeding, attachment, “parental alienation” and psychological diagnosis – for which they may have no relevant qualification, and it’s always worth asking what are their qualifications for making such judgements. They have also cut down on the amount of independent research they do on cases becoming ever more reliant on information provided by the Local Authority. If there are disputed facts for example, check if the Guardian has considered your evidence before arriving at a conclusion. Keep in mind that even if the Guardian and the Local Authority agree with each other, it is the judge who makes the decisions, not either of them.

Guardians who are truly independent can be decisive in arguing for the welfare of the child and preventing unwarranted separations. Sadly, many we have met were biased against the mother and more inclined to side with social workers – they have usually worked for a local authority before becoming Guardians and are often more concerned with keeping those connections than looking at challenging evidence with an open mind. But some are good and are genuinely concerned with what is best for your child. It’s also worth remembering that if your child’s wishes are not being put forward by the guardian, children over the age of 10 are entitled to engage their own lawyer if they are “Gillick” competent [23] . 

The Guardian will prepare a report for the final hearing. It will really help your case if they don’t agree with the CS proposals to take your children away! If you don’t agree with the Guardian’s report it’s really important that you go through it carefully with your lawyer and make sure they challenge what you don’t agree with. The Guardian can be told to come to court to give their evidence in person, which means they can be cross-examined by your lawyer. The Guardian has their own solicitor and usually also a barrister who represents them in court. 

If you need assistance in court 

If you have a learning difficulty, a medical issue or are considered “vulnerable” for other reasons, you should be treated according to Practice Direction 3AA [29] Vulnerable Persons Participation in Proceedings and Giving Evidence. This means there should be an assessment of your needs done by a Court appointed assessor. This must be someone who must be jointly agreed so if you have someone in mind then you can ask for them to assess you. For any assessors the court suggests, read their CVs carefully and challenge them if you don’t agree with the person chosen to assess, in particular if they are nor specialists in your condition. If required, an advocate (in addition to your lawyer) will be appointed to meet your needs and additional time in court to make decisions will be given, read paperwork and write and serve your position statements. 

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