Child protection in England Care proceedings

If the local authority believes that a child is at risk of significant harm they may decide that it's necessary to take the child into care to help keep them safe.

Unless the level of risk requires the courts to get involved immediately, care proceedings will only start after extensive efforts to keep the child with their family. If these efforts have failed then the parents will be invited to a pre-proceedings meeting as a final attempt to avoid going to court.

Pre-proceedings meeting

A pre-proceedings meeting takes place between the local authority, the parents and the parents' lawyer to discuss with the parents how they can change the way they look after their child and what support and help is needed from the local authority.

If both sides agree, they will write a formal agreement that both the parents and the local authority have to follow. If parents don't agree to the changes, or don't follow the agreement, the local authority will probably ask the court to take the child into care.

If the courts agree that it's necessary, they can make an order giving the local authority parental responsibility for a child.

Parental responsibility

Parental responsibility is a set of legal rights and responsibilities, including making sure a child has somewhere to live, is looked after, and kept safe.

Parental responsibility gives the right to make important decisions about a child's life like:

  • who looks after them
  • where they live
  • how they are educated.

Legal definitions for the 4 nations:

Going to court

Care proceedings are usually held in the Family Court and more complex cases may be held in the High Court. The court will make sure the child has a children's guardian. The guardian's job is to look after the child's interests. If the child is judged to be mature enough they will also be allowed to appoint their own solicitor to represent their wishes.

The child's social worker will make a care plan to help the court decide how the child should be cared for.

Care plans

Before a child is taken into care the local authority will produce a plan for the future care of the child. The parents and the child should be involved in developing the care plan (also known as a child plan in Scotland).

The plan should show how the child’s needs would be met in care, including their health, education and contact with family members.

Legal definitions for the 4 nations:

At the first (initial) hearing the court may decide that a temporary (interim) care order is needed to set out what should happen to the child during proceedings:

The first step is usually to apply to the courts for an interim care order. An interim care order is awarded for 8 weeks. It must be renewed every 4 weeks. This will allow time for matters to be investigated further and plans to be made. The Trust will produce a care plan. This will detail:

  • where the child will live
  • arrangements for attending school
  • arrangements for seeing parents.

In some cases the child may continue living at home with the parents under specified conditions. However, if the conditions aren't met then the Trust is able to intervene without having to obtain a separate care order.

The judge will decide how long the interim care order will last and how often it will be reviewed.

If social services think a care order is necessary they will ask the court for a full care order to be made. The court will only make a full care order if they are convinced that the threshold criteria is met:

  • the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm
  • making an order would be better for the child than making no order at all (presumption of "no order")

and, that harm is due to either

  • the care the child is receiving or likely to receive if the care order isn't made
  • or, the child is beyond parental control.

A care order gives the local authority parental responsibility for a child. Parental responsibility is shared with the parents, but the local authority has the power to decide how much involvement a parent should have with their child and how far the parents can use their parental responsibility.

Once a care order has been made, the child's care plan will be carried out.

If the local authority believes adoption is the best option for a child, the court can make a placement order. This allows a child to be placed with prospective adopters prior to an adoption order.

An adoption order transfers parental responsibility to the adoptive parents. It is only made by a court following extensive enquiries. The sole criteria for deciding if the order should be made, is the best interest of the child.

At the point of the adoption the care order ends and the adoptive parents take over sole parental responsibility.

Unless an adoption order is made or the child returns home, care orders last until the child turns 18. Local authorities have a duty to continue to promote the welfare of care-leavers until the age of 21.

Except in the most complicated cases, care proceedings should take no longer than 26 weeks. If necessary the court can extend the case for up to eight weeks at a time.

See our children in care pages for more information.

Legal definitions:

view Section 33 and 38 of the Children Act 1989

view the Adoption and Children Act 2002

view section 14 of the Children and Families Act 2014

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