What is the Children Act 1989?

The Children Act 1989 is in place to ensure that children are safeguarded. This guide from DeltaNet International breaks down the Act to clearly explain what it covers.

The Children Act 1989 manages what local authorities, courts, parents, and other agencies in the UK are doing to ensure that children are safeguarded. Safeguarding refers to the process of protecting vulnerable members of society from abuse and neglect. This means making sure their well-being, health care, and human rights are all being looked after to a high standard. One group of individuals that safeguarding focuses on are children, and this includes anyone under the age of 18.

The Act centres on the idea that children are best cared for within their own families; however, it also deals with cases when parents and families are not the best option too.

Part 1: Introduction

Child welfare: The Act states that children’s welfare should be the number one concern of the courts. It also specifies that any delays in the system processes could have a detrimental impact on a child’s welfare. The court needs to think of:

  • The child’s wishes
  • Their physical, emotional and educational needs
  • Their age
  • Their sex
  • Their background circumstances
  • Harm that the child has suffered or is likely to suffer
  • The parent’s ability to meet the child’s needs
  • The likely effect of change on the child

Parental responsibility: The Act defines parental responsibility as “all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property”.

If the child’s parents are married then both of them have parental responsibility. If they are unmarried, the father doesn’t automatically have parental responsibility but the father of a child who isn’t married to the mother at the time of birth can apply to the courts for parental responsibility, or it can just be done through mutual agreement between the mother and father.

The Act specifies that more than one person can have parental responsibility, although they can act alone in decision making for the child.

If a child does not have anyone to care for them with parental responsibility, a guardian can be appointed by the court.

Part 2: Orders with respect to children in family proceedings

Orders: These orders, which can be issued by the courts, outline the requirements of the person the child resides with to allow contact with another person.

Prohibited steps order: Prevents a parent from exercising their full parental responsibility without consent of the court.

Residence order/Child arrangement order: Puts in place the arrangements for whom a child should live with.

Specific issue order: Relates to directions given from the court to address a query that has arisen regarding parental responsibility for a child.

When an application is made to the court for one of these orders, the court takes into account:

  • The nature of the proposed application
  • The connection the person has to the child
  • The disruption that could be caused to the child
  • The local authorities’ plans for the child’s future and the wishes of the child’s parents.

A person who gains a residence order for a child holds parental responsibility for the time the order is in place. However, the Act forbids anyone from changing the child’s surname or removing them from the UK without permission from all those with parental responsibility.

Part 3: Local authority support for children and families

Children in need: A child is deemed “in need” if they are disabled or unlikely to achieve a reasonable standard of health or development unless certain services are provided to them. The local authority has a duty to provide services for children in need. Additionally, if the child is under the age of 5 and not attending school, then the local authority must provide day care for them.

Accommodation: Local authorities must provide accommodation for any child in need who has no-one with parental responsibility to care for them. This also applies to children that have a parent available, if staying with that parent would put the child at risk.

Children leaving care: Upon leaving care they should be given advice and assistance from the local authority. This could be anything ranging from financial to emotional assistance. They may also contribute to the expenses incurred by the young person regarding employment, training or education.

Part 4: Care and supervision

Orders: A care or supervision order may be granted by the court if a child is or is likely to suffer significant harm if they are not placed into local authority care. If, during family court, the court has concerns for a child’s welfare, they can direct the local authority to investigate. The local authority can then decide if they are going to apply for a care or supervision order.

When a care order is issued the local authority must take the child into care and accommodate them for the period of time the order is in force. The local authority will have parental responsibility for the child.

A supervision order makes it the duty of the supervisor to “advise, assist and befriend” the child and to consider applying to the court for a variation on the order if it is not being fully complied with. For example, an education supervision order may be granted if it is deemed that a child is not being properly educated.

An interim order may be made if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the subject child has suffered, or is likely to suffer, significant harm.

Guardians: A guardian shall be appointed by the court to safeguard the child’s interests unless this is deemed to not be required by the court. The court can also appoint a solicitor to represent the child. The guardian is under an obligation to represent and safeguard the interests of the child during the currency of the legal proceedings.

Part 5: Protection of children

Child assessment orders can be requested by the local authority if they believe it would not be possible to complete a proper assessment without an order. It must only be requested if the applicant has reason to believe that the child is likely to suffer significant harm.

An emergency protection order can be requested if it is believed a child is likely to suffer significant harm if they are not taken to, or remain in, a place of safety. This is similar to police protection provisions – they do not require a court order.

Part 6: Community Homes

All local authorities must ensure they have community homes available to utilise for children looked after. This may be a home which is controlled by the local authority or a voluntary organisation working on behalf of the local authority.

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