Care Proceedings- What is the ‘Public Law Outline’?
The Government recognised in 2006 that it would be beneficial for the way care proceedings are run in the Courts to be simplified and for the procedures to be improved. From 1st April 2008, it was decided that care proceedings would be regulated by the “Practice Direction- Public Law Proceedings Guide to Case Management”, known as the Public Law Outline (PLO).
The aim of this was to reduce any delays within Court proceedings and to ensure that the Local Authority’s, CAFCASS and legal aid funding are used as effectively as possible.
There is now an obligation that the Court must try and conclude any care proceedings within 26 weeks of the case starting and requires the Court to remain child-focused throughout.
The PLO divides care proceedings into four main stages, namely the following:
2) Stage 1- Issue and Allocation
3) Stage 2- Case Management Hearing
4) Stage 3- Issues Resolution Hearing
If matters are not concluded at the Issues Resolution Hearing, the Court will list a Final Hearing to resolve any outstanding issues in the case.
Local Authorities have a general duty to promote the upbringing of children in need within their families so far as this is possible in line with their duty to safeguard and promote the children’s welfare. If the Local Authority has any concerns about the care of a child, it is important that they first complete their own assessments and interventions and demonstrate that they have done so before applying to the Court for a Care or Supervision Order.
This is demonstrated by completing documents known as ‘Checklist’ and ‘Annex’ Documents which include a chronology of events to date, a statement by the social worker, a care plan for the child/ren and any assessments they have completed before their Court application.
2. Issue and Allocation
On Day 1, the Local Authority send their application form together with their Annex and Checklist documents to the local Family Court and CAFCASS. The Court will consider the application and ensure that the Local Authority has filed all the correct documents. They then issue the application and send it to the gatekeeping team in the Court to consider which level of Judge the case should be allocated to, depending on the complexity of the case.
The allocated Judge will then send out an Order called the ‘standard directions on issue’ which will list the first hearing and make court directions for certain documents to be prepared and sent to the Court in readiness for the hearing. Such directions will include the Local Authority preparing an outstanding documents and the allocated Children’s Guardian from CAFCASS preparing a position statement or report. This Order should be prepared and sent out by the end of Day 2 to allow the parties sufficient time to prepare any documents required by the Court.
3. Case Management Hearing
This is the first Court hearing and should take place before Day 12 in the PLO process. Before any hearing, an Advocates’ Meeting will take place, no more than 2 days before, between all the legal representatives to discuss each party’s position in respect of the Local Authority’s application to the Court. Each party’s legal representative will also need to prepare a short statement, no longer than two sides of A4, which sets out their position so that the Court is aware of this prior to the hearing commencing.
In readiness for the first hearing, each party is also able to make an application for an expert to complete an assessment within the proceedings if they consider this to be necessary. Examples of expert assessments include parenting assessments or a psychiatric or psychological assessment of a parent or the child/ren. These applications will be considered by the Judge at the Case Management Hearing.
At this hearing, the Court will:
• Identify the key issues in the case
• Consider if there are any additional parties to the proceedings
• Analyse the care plan
• Create a timetable the proceedings
• Consider whether any expert evidence is required
• Determine whether a fact-finding hearing is required
• List the Issues Resolution Hearing and any Final Hearing
The Court may also consider making an interim Care or Supervision Order at the Case Management Hearing which will last for the duration of the proceedings and will consider making a Final Order at the Final Hearing.
The Court could consider that a fact-finding hearing is necessary. A fact-finding may be required, for example, in a case where there is more than one possible perpetrator who caused significant harm to a child and therefore the Court will need to determine who was the most likely perpetrator. This hearing would be heard just before any Final Hearing to determine the relevant factual history. This will help the Court in making long term plans for the child/ren’s care.
If all the issues cannot be addressed at this first hearing for any reason, the Court may consider listing a Further Case Management Hearing which must be heard by the Court by no later than Day 20 in the PLO process.
4. Issues Resolution Hearing
This is a hearing that is listed before any Final Hearing and is used to make final case management directions. If all the issues can be resolved at this stage, the Court may decide to use this hearing as an early Final Hearing.
At this hearing, the Court will:
• Identify any outstanding issues and try to narrow these down
• Review the timetable
• Give directions up to the Final Hearing including filing any final evidence and agreeing the time estimate of the Final Hearing
If the case cannot be resolved at the Issues Resolution stage, the case will proceed to a Final Hearing. At the Final Hearing, all the parties, including the parents, social worker and Children’s Guardian, together with any instructed experts in the case, will give oral evidence at Court allowing each party to be heard and challenged.
At the conclusion of a Final Hearing, the Judge will give a Judgment which sets out the Court’s decision. This must occur within 26 weeks of the Local Authority making their application and this deadline will only be extended in appropriate circumstances. An initial extension of time can be for 8 weeks and thereafter will be in blocks of 8 weeks.
The Court’s will follow this step-by-step procedure in care proceedings to ensure that the application is dealt with effectively and expeditiously.
Artilce by Alice Clayson paralegal to Deborah Marsden
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