1.4.3 Legal Gateway and Legal Planning Meeting
1. Purpose of Legal Planning Meetings
Legal Planning Meetings are an essential part of the process for dealing with public law children's cases under the Public Law Outline. In Sheffield the legal planning meeting (formal legal discussion) usually takes place at the Legal Gateway, although separate Legal Planning Meetings can be arranged through Legal Services where necessary.The relevant area team manager presents at the area case management meeting, a discussion in respect of the concerns being raised. If a decision is made to instigate PLO this is heard at the weekly Legal Gateway. At that meeting the case will be presented by the allocated social worker. This is because they will have a more detailed knowledge of the case and because it will be an opportunity for their understanding of and approach to the case to be tested by questioning from others in a manner which will have some similarity to what they will face in Court.
Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division in 'The Process of Reform: the revised PLO and the Local Authority', states that a properly organised legal planning meeting is invaluable and can be the key to achieving timely outcomes to Care Proceedings. He also recommends that local authority lawyers be involved, advising and assisting their social work clients, at an early stage.
A Legal Planning Meeting should be held to discuss the way forward in a particular case, where an application for a legal order may be required. This can include:
- Following an application for an Emergency Protection Order when consideration is being given to an application for an Interim Care Order;
- When it is clear that the protection or welfare of a child cannot be achieved by agreement with the parents, or the security of a legal order is necessary to ensure the viability of a plan for a child, or the existing court order is not providing adequate protection for the child;
- Where it is thought that a legal order may be required in order to assist in the permanence planning for children, whether that is a return to the family or to achieve permanence elsewhere.
Note: where children are already Section 20 Accommodated there should be no delay in issuing proceedings where this is required, (see, Decision to Look After and Care Planning Procedure, Section 20 Accommodation).
At the meeting, a decision should be made in principle about whether the Threshold Criteria have been met. The local authority should then decide, based on a robust analysis of the level of assessed risk, whether:
- It is in the best interests of the child to provide a further period of support for the family with the aim of avoiding proceedings; or
- Whether proceedings should be initiated immediately.
The meeting should also identify any evidence gaps, clarify whether additional assessments will be required, and consider what would be a suitable draft Care Plan for the child.
The Legal Gateway and Legal Planning Meetings are opportunity to discuss a case fully, and to consult with colleagues to ensure that children are the subject of active case management and that appropriate legal action is taken when required to promote and safeguard the welfare of the child.The role of the local authority legal adviser is to advise about the legal possibilities for achieving the desired aim and to give a view about the quality of the evidence available.
In order to enable a full discussion to take place, the following must be available:
- Relevant assessment/s;
- An up to date Chronology;
- A Plan or a clear indication that options for a plan have been considered;
- A Genogram.
The issues to be considered at the meeting will include the following:
- The reasons for the concerns and the evidential basis for establishing Significant Harm and the Threshold Criteria;
- Why Care Proceedings are necessary - what is their aim, objective and purpose?
- The steps already taken to clarify the issues of concern - i.e. Assessment, as well as other medical and other expert involvement;
- Whether the requirements of the Pre-Proceedings Checklist set out in the Public Law Outline have been met, including a written notification to the parents about the areas of concern and their right to seek legal advice. See Care and Supervision Proceedings and the Public Law Outline Procedure;
- When will the Assessment and other supporting documentation be available, if not already?
Note that with pre-birth situations a recent High Court judgment has set out good practice steps to include:
- A risk assessment of the parent(s) should be undertaken immediately the social workers are made aware of the mother's pregnancy and should be completed 4 weeks before the mother's expected delivery date and disclosed to the parent(s) (and their solicitor where relevant);
- All relevant documentation should be then sent to the Local Authority Legal Adviser to issue proceedings.
(See, Care and Supervision Proceedings and the Public Law Outline, Pre-birth Planning and Proceedings).
- The action/decisions already taken and where the decisions were made e.g. Strategy Discussion/Meeting, Child Protection Conference, Core Group meeting;
- The proposed Care Plan for the child, including the proposed placement and any cultural, language and ethnic issues, the need for a Twin Track Plan, consultation with parents and the wider family, whether any family members are available to care for the child on an interim or permanent basis, if so whether the required checks have been made, the proposals for contact;
- How the proposed Care Plan is to be achieved, including where appropriate arranging a date for the case to be presented to the Adoption Panel;
- Whether it may be appropriate to instruct any further expert assessment before the commencement of court proceedings - if so, what are the proposed remit of the instructions and the areas to be addressed, who should the assessment be done by and what are the likely timescales?
- Have there been previous Court proceedings in relation to the family? If so, what steps are required to obtain the papers in relation to the case from the Court? or another local authority?
- When will the social worker's Statement of Evidence be ready?
If Care Proceedings are recommended, the Care and Supervision Proceedings and the Public Law Outline Procedure should be followed.
Any potential issues/documentation regarding parental capacity to litigate should be flagged up at the meeting.
3. Who can Convene Legal Planning Meetings or Refer to the Legal Gateway
The decision to convene a Legal Planning Meeting will be made by the social worker's line manager - the decision will usually be taken following a recommendation from a Child Protection Conference, as a result of a Looked After Review, a Permanence Planning Meeting, or on the request of a social worker, manager, local authority lawyer, or other agency. The decision to refer to Legal Gateway is usually made at Area Case Management Meetings.
4. Attendance at Legal Gateway and Legal Planning Meetings
Legal Gateway is chaired on a rotating basis by one of the Children and Families Service Managers. The meeting will be attended by the other Service Managers and by representatives from Fostering,Family Group Conferencing, Youth Justice, Education and the Designated Doctor for Safeguarding. The allocated social worker will attend and present the case.
A Legal Planning Meeting will be chaired by the social worker's line manager, and will usually involve the following: the child's social worker; a local authority legal adviser; and any other professional from other agencies or services that have relevant involvement with the family and whose view would assist in making decisions about the child's legal status, who has first-hand evidence and may be a potential witness, and/or who may be involved in the provision of services integral to the order being sought.
Where the child has been in foster care, the views of the foster carer should be sought by the child's social worker, and taken into consideration in the legal planning meeting. This may include information on the child's progress in their placement and on the impact of contact with their family.
5. Timing and Duration of Legal Gateway/Legal Planning Meetings
The timing of Legal Gateway and the Legal Planning Meeting is likely to be determined by the urgency of court proceedings and the need to allow sufficient time for necessary preparation.
6. Recording of Legal Gateway and Legal Planning Meetings
Notes of Legal Gateway and Legal Planning Meetings should be circulated to all attendees. These are legally privileged and should not be made available to parents or other parties in any potential proceedings without the permission of the Chairperson or Director.
7. Review/Subsequent Legal Gateway and Legal Planning Meetings
The meetings should consider whether further consideration and reviews are necessary and if so, when. It may be that new information emerges which requires a change of plan for the child. In this event, the matter should be referred back to Legal Gateway, or a Legal Planning Meeting must be reconvened in order to consider the implications for the legal plan, as appropriate.