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Child abuse - emergency protection orders

This advice applies to England

If there are concerns about child abuse, there are different sorts of court orders that can be applied for to protect the child.  One order is called an emergency protection order and this page tells you more about these orders.

What is an emergency protection order?

An emergency protection order is used in exceptionally serious situations.  It gives:

  • limited parental responsibility for the child to whoever applied for the order.  This parental responsibility is limited to whatever is needed for the child’s welfare, and
  • the right to remove the child (or prevent their removal) from where they are now.

Who can apply for an emergency protection order?

Anyone can apply to the court for an emergency protection order if they fear that a child is in imminent danger. For example, if you’re a family member who has very serious concerns that a child is being abused, you could apply for an emergency protection order. Almost all applications are made by the local authority but the police or the NSPCC could also apply.

On the rest of this page, we refer to the local authority as the organisation who applies for an emergency protection order but remember it could be someone else.

Notice

The local authority usually has to give the parents one day’s notice of their application for an emergency protection order. However, in rare, very serious cases they don’t have to give any notice, for example, if there’s been a threat to kill the child or if there’s a strong risk that the parent will run away with the child.  If they make the application with no notice, a copy of the application and the order must be given or sent to (served on) the parents within 48 hours.

If you, as the parent, get notice of an application for an emergency protection order or a copy of the order once it has been made, get legal advice from a specialist solicitor. They offer emergency services and legal aid should be available for this type of case. Unless it’s an application made without notice, you have the right to go to the hearing and question the local authority about the need for an emergency protection order. It’s usually best to be legally represented at these applications.

When will the court make an emergency protection order

Before it can make an emergency protection order, the court must be satisfied that the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, unless:

  • they are taken away from where they are now, or
  • they stay where  they are now. For example, the child might be in hospital, and the local authority is afraid harm will come to them if they are taken out of hospital.

The court will also need to be satisfied that it’s in the child's best interests for the order to be made.

Instead of applying for an emergency protection order for the reasons listed above, the local authority or the NSPCC (but no-one else) could apply for an emergency protection order on the grounds that:

  • they have been making enquiries to see whether the child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm, and
  • they can’t make proper enquiries because they are being denied reasonable access to the child, and
  • they believe that access to the child is needed as a matter of urgency.

What happens when an emergency protection order is made

If necessary, the court can give the local authority permission to enter premises set out in the court order to search for the child.  

The court can also issue a warrant authorising a police officer to go with the social workers if they are refused, or are likely to be refused, entry to the premises or access to the child.  The police officer can help the social workers to remove the child or prevent the child's removal.

It’s a criminal offence to obstruct someone from removing or preventing the removal of a child if there’s an emergency protection order in force.

If the social workers believe that there may be another child in the same premises, they can ask the court for an order allowing them to search for that child.  If the child is found on the premises and the social workers believe that the conditions for making an emergency protection order are met, the search order has the effect of an emergency protection order and the other child can be removed immediately.

When the court makes an emergency protection order, it may attach other instructions (directions) to the order, for example:

  • to allow medical examination or psychiatric or other assessments - see below
  • to allow contact between the child and any named person - see below
  • to exclude someone who has abused the child from the child's home.

Assessments under an emergency protection order

The court may instruct that the child should have a medical, psychiatric or other assessment or that they shouldn’t have any of these assessments.

If the child understands enough to make an informed decision, they can refuse to have an examination or assessment, even if the court has ordered this.

Contact

While the emergency protection order is in force, the court will decide whether the child should be allowed reasonable contact with:

  • their parents
  • any other person with parental responsibility for them
  • anyone they were living with immediately before the order was made
  • anyone who has a child arrangements order for the child.

Contact between the child and any of these people will be covered by any instructions given by the court.  For example, the local authority may ask the court to only to allow supervised contact if a parent has been abusive towards a child.

How long will an emergency protection order last

The local authority must return the child to the parent as soon as it appears safe to do so. They must review the case every day to make sure the parents and child are not separated for longer than is needed. However, an emergency protection order can last for up to eight days. And it can be extended by a further seven days (that is 15 days in all), if the local authority or the NSPCC have applied for it and they go back to the court for permission to extend the order. The court may do this if they have a good reason to believe that the child is likely to suffer significant harm if the order isn’t extended.

While the emergency protection order is in force, the local authority may decide to begin care proceedings. It may then apply for an interim care order or supervision order.

Appeals

There’s no right of appeal against an emergency protection order. However, certain people can apply to have the order stopped (discharged) if they weren’t given notice of the hearing or weren’t present at it. The people who can apply to discharge the order are:

  • the child
  • the child's parents
  • anyone with parental responsibility for the child
  • anyone the child was living with immediately before the order was made, unless they were present at the court hearing.

If the local authority is satisfied that it’s safe for the child to be returned home or removed to another place, they must return the child or allow them to go somewhere else. So, for example, if you’re the parent and you’ve taken steps to make a child safe whilst an emergency protection order is in force, you can argue that the child should be returned straightaway. If you want to get the order discharged, get advice from a specialist solicitor. You might get legal aid.

Complaints

If you’re unhappy with the way that the local authority has applied for an emergency protection order, you may be able to complain. For example, you could complain if you feel that the local authority did not take certain evidence into account or if they have acted in a discriminatory way. Get specialist advice about complaining in these circumstances.

Next steps

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