Before Child Services takes you to court, they have to issue a letter before proceedings which will list all the issues they are concerned about and what you need to do to avoid going to court. This is called a Public Law Outline (PLO). At this point you are automatically entitled to legal aid and you must get a lawyer.
We have had a lot of trouble finding lawyers who are respectful of mothers and ready to fight for us and our children – many represent both families and local authorities, they assume there is truth in what is being said about you, and don’t challenge Children’s Services. Mothers often lose their case because their lawyer was “useless”, “more on the side of the local authority than on mine”. Try to find a lawyer who does not represent local authorities.
Child Services will usually give you a list of local lawyers you can call, and if you have very little notice you might have to use one of them. But generally, it’s better not to use a lawyer from this list as they will be lawyers that Child Services have worked with and might not support your case as well as they should. We also suggest that you look for a lawyer out of the area and look at the cases they have worked on. If they have worked for Child Services in other cases try to find someone who hasn’t. You can always change lawyers after the first hearing, if you’re not happy with them (see 8).
You will be invited to a pre-proceedings meeting, where you should be given six weeks to make changes before Child Services go to court to take your child away. Make sure any family, friend or advocate who is helping comes to that meeting with you as well as your lawyer. At that meeting Child Services might ask you if you have any family member who would take your child if they are taken away from you. This may be a good time to ask for a Family Group Conference (see 8.3) if there hasn’t been one already. They might also ask you to sign a Section 20 – see below.
At any point that Child Services decides to try to remove your child (unless they go for an Emergency Order), they will have to send you a “Letter of Issue” which tells you that legal proceedings are starting and that you are entitled to immediate legal aid. You should find a good lawyer right away if you haven’t already.