Parental responsibility (PR) is defined in the Children Act 1989 as the "rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority" which a parent of a child obtains, by law, in relation to the child. In practical terms, this encompasses the responsibility and ability a person has to make certain decisions, both large and small, regarding many facets of the child’s life, including their education, medical procedures and upbringing.
When a child is born, the birth mother of the child will automatically acquire PR. Fathers who are are married to the mother or registered on the child’s birth certificate will also have PR, otherwise they must enter into a PR agreement or obtain a court order to acquire it. This is also the case for another female parent.
However, alongside this, individuals other than the parents can acquire PR, including:
A local authority acquires PR when a child is made subject to a care order, interim or otherwise, by the court. This occurs in cases where the court is satisfied that the child is either currently suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm if the order were not made, or that the child is beyond parental control. It is the duty of the local authority to show that these ’threshold criteria’ have been met by the case and child in question.
Only a local authority or the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) can apply for a child to be made subject of a Care Order. Whilst the court cannot initiate care proceedings, it can direct the local authority to conduct an investigation, which may lead to the initiation of proceedings and the eventual granting of a Care Order. A Care Order cannot be made once a child is over 17 years of age.
Alternatively, a local authority can apply to temporarily share PR in circumstances that require urgent short-term protection. This is achieved by an Emergency Protection Order (EPO), and is often applied for in cases where access to the child faces imminent danger of physical, mental or emotional harm and the circumstances constitute a genuine emergency. The court must be satisfied that there is reasonable cause to believe the child is likely to suffer harm if not removed from their current living arrangements. An EPO lasts for eight days, however it can be extended for up to seven more days on application to the court if there is a significant risk of harm to the child.
It is important to note, in these instances, that more than one person can have PR at the same time. As such, it is not the case that when a local authority acquires PR that those who otherwise held PR at the same time are stripped of such status. Instead, the local authority simply acquires PR in addition to those who already have it. However, a local authority can set limits on how others with PR exercise their own responsibilities.
Primarily, the local authority must receive the child into its care for the duration of the care order and it has a duty, before making any decisions in respect of the child, to ascertain and give consideration to the wishes and feelings of the child as well as those with PR and anyone else of relevance. This runs hand in hand with the local authority’s duty to keep any individual with whom it shares PR informed as to the child’s welfare and what decisions are being taken in relation to them. The local authority should not make decisions without such prior consultation.
The Children Act 1989 sets out the general duty of a local authority looking after a child to safeguard and promote their welfare. This duty underpins all decisions that the local authority should make in relation to the child, including, primarily, where the child will live. A key principle in the Children Act enshrines the need for children to remain within their families, where safe to do so. However, if any concerns arise with current accommodation arrangements then the local authority can, at any time and on an urgent basis, place the child in alternative accommodation. The local authority is also responsible for arrangements with respect to the child’s health, which comprises the need to form an actionable health plan premised off of a prior medical assessment of the child’s physical and mental health as well as their family history and various needs.
The local authority must then, by law, review the circumstances of the child within four weeks of having them within their care. This is then to be followed up by a three month review and continuing reviews every six months. This allows the opportunity for any alterations to be made to the child’s living arrangements should circumstances change.
The responsible local authority also has an obligation to create a Care Plan for a child in its care. This Care Plan, as far as practicable, must be agreed by, and discussed with, any relevant professionals, the child and all individuals with PR. It will be exhaustive in terms of containing a long-term plan for the child’s upbringing, including arrangements in relation to important facets of their life and upbringing, namely:
Emotional and behavioural development
Family and social relationships.
The child’s care and progress must be reviewed by an Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) on a regular basis and no substantial changes to the child’s care should take place without a proposed change being reviewed.
A care order lasts until the child becomes 18, unless it is terminated earlier by the child being adopted, a residence order being made or the court discharges the order. A Care Order can be discharged if the applicant, which can be the child, a parent, local authority, or anyone with parental responsibility, can demonstrate that there is a significant change in circumstances since the Care Order was granted. It is a duty of the local authority to keep the circumstances under review and consider where to apply to discharge the Care Order.
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