Assessment of pre-proceedings processes in children's social care
The Public Law Outline (PLO), introduced in April 2008 changed what was required of local authorities seeking to protect children through court proceedings. It imposed a pre-proceedings process to be used in all cases where the threshold for legal intervention (Children Act 1989, s.31) was met but proceedings to protect children were not immediately required. The process involves the local authority sending the parents a letter setting out their concerns and inviting them to a formal meeting with the social worker. The letter entitles the parents to legal aid for advice and representation at a pre-proceedings meeting at which plans for the children will be discussed. The process is intended to avoid the unnecessary use of care proceedings by encouraging the parents to work co-operatively with children’s social care services to improve their parenting or, if this is not possible, to narrow the issues in dispute and ensure proceedings are better prepared. The aim of the research is to examine the operation of the pre-proceedings process to see whether and how it is achieving what was intended. Specifically, the research establishes: 1) The extent to which local authorities use processes before starting care proceedings; 2) The similarities and differences between cases where process is and is not used. 3) The practices social workers, local authority lawyers, parents and parents representatives adopt in pre-proceedings meetings; 4) The impact of the process on child protection cases; and 5) parents' perceptions of the pre-proceedings process and its impact on their relationship with the Children's Social Care Department. Data sources included: Cases schedules completed by researchers from 207 Local authority legal department case files and court bundles; 69 in-depth interviews with professionals (lawyers, social workers and social work managers); fieldworker notes of 36 observations of pre-proceedings meetings; and 25 in-depth interviews with parents.