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What is a care order in family law?

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If the local authority has contacted you regarding a care order relating to your children, we understand that you will be feeling anxious and you will have questions about the next steps in maintaining your relationship with your children.  Robyn Finnegan, Solicitor in our Family Law team, explains what a care order is, how long an order can last and whether you can appeal such an order. 

Why would a care order be brought against me?

There are certain situations where the Local Authority may have concerns about the welfare of your children and therefore intervene through a Court order.  This may be if they believe your children have suffered significant harm, are at risk from significant harm, including because of the environment they live in or because they have concerns about your ability to control their actions.  This is known as the ‘threshold criteria’, with the burden of proof on the Local Authority to show that this threshold has been met. 

There are a variety of orders that can be used, and the Court will always choose the most appropriate order with the best interests of the child at the heart of their decision. One option for the Court is a care order, which can be made as an interim Care Order for the duration of proceedings or as a final Care Order.  There are several steps that have to be taken before a Court will make a Care Order and all other options must be ruled out.

When a care order is put in place, the Local Authority shares parental responsibility with the person or persons who already have parental responsibility.  While you, as the parent, would have an input into any decisions made about your children, the Local Authority have overriding parental responsibility so even if you do not agree, the Local Authority have the final say about arrangements.  This can include decisions about removing the child from your care.  An interim care order permits the Local Authority temporary care of the child while care proceedings are ongoing, and they are also granted parental responsibility of the child during an interim care order. 

Only the Local Authority or the NSPCC can apply for a care order with the Court.  You are entitled to attend the Court hearing and have your views heard about the order. If you are a person with parental responsibility, you will also be entitled to legal aid regardless of your financial circumstances.  It is mainly for this reason that we would recommend that you seek legal advice so that you understand your rights and those of your children prior to any hearings.

If the risk of harm to the child is due to the presence of an abusive partner or other person in the home, then an interim care order can also include an order to remove them from the home, known as an exclusion order.  There are certain terms that need to apply in order for this to come into force, which we can discuss with you if this is a concern of yours. 

What happens to my children under a care order?

Under the care order, the Local Authority will devise a care plan which will include a variety of arrangements for the child, including where they will live.  In these circumstances, the child could be placed with relatives, foster parents or be placed in a children’s home.

The plan will also include the arrangements for permitted contact with the child.  Parents, those with parental responsibility and other relatives will be allowed a reasonable amount of contact, which will be determined on a case by case basis depending on the situations of the care order.

A care plan is also a requirement under an interim care order, which will specify the same considerations regarding living arrangements and contact. 

The Local Authority has a number of responsibilities towards your child following the implementation of a care order, including:

  • providing accommodation;
  • protecting their welfare;
  • consulting the child and those with parental responsibility before making any decision about their care arrangements;
  • regularly review the suitability of the care order;
  • ensuring that any decisions made align with the child’s cultural, racial and religious heritage;
  • regularly review the care plan through independent means, and
  • bear in mind plans for the child once they leave the care of the Local Authority.

How long does a care order last?

An interim care order will ordinarily last for eight weeks in the first instance and then can be extended for periods of up to 28 days.  A care order will usually exist until the child turns 18, and cannot be made once a child has turned 17, unless the order is discharged.

An application to discharge the care order can be made after a certain amount of time by the parents or persons with parental responsibility, the Local Authority or the child themselves and must demonstrate that the situation has changed enough to warrant the order being removed.  For example, if your children have been removed from your care due to drug or alcohol misuse, if you are able to prove that you have gone for a significant amount of time without using, or you have spent time in a support facility, this may be grounds to discharge the order and have the children returned to your care.

Can I appeal against a care order?

Appealing a care order is different to applying to have the order discharged as you can only discharge an order once it has been in place for a certain amount of time. 

In very rare circumstances we can discuss whether you or your child are eligible to appeal against the order.  You have 21 days from when the order is made, and you can either appeal against the order entirely, or seek to vary to a supervision order. 

What is a supervision order?

The Court may feel that in certain circumstances that a supervision order may be more appropriate than a care order, for example it may be that you need additional support and that it would not be in the best interests of your child to leave the family home.  Under a supervision order, the child will remain with you with support from the Local Authority to advise and assist.  They will visit you regularly and take it upon themselves to make recommendations as to how the welfare of the child could be improved.  A supervision order can last for a year but this may be extended to three years if the Local Authority sees fit. The Local Authority do not share parental responsibility if a supervision order is made.

Care orders are normally considered a last resort, and it is likely you will have been working with social services for a time before an order is made.  Care orders however can be made urgently by the Local Authority, which we understand will be a distressing and confusing time for you and your children.  We are on hand to support you and offer our legal expertise regarding your rights and the best course of action to proceed.  To discuss your situation with Robyn or a member of the Family Law team, you can contact us today on 023 8071 7431 or email


This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.