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Child Protection System in the UK

The Department for Education (DfE) determines how the child protection system works. DfE sets out legislation, policy, and guidance.

The latest guidance on the children’s social care national framework can be found here.

Laws are passed to prevent behaviour that can harm children or require action to protect children. The guidance sets out what organisations should do to play their part in keeping children safe.

At a local level, there are safeguarding partners who are responsible for child protection. There are three statutory safeguarding partners:

  • Local authorities (including schools)
  • Clinical commissioning groups
  • The police
  • Voluntary organisations working with children

These safeguarding partners work closely with local agencies to ensure the welfare of children and identify and support any children who are at risk of harm.

What is the Legislation for Child Protection?

There are several pieces of legislation that support the protection of children:

  • Children Act 1989 and 2004
  • Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995
  • Children (Scotland) Act 1995
  • Children and Social Work Act 2017
  • Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018
  • Keeping Children Safe in Education 2019
  • Children and Families Act 2014
  • Equality Act 2010
  • Education Act 2002
  • Domestic Abuse Act 2021
  • Human Rights Act 1998 (with European Convention on Human Rights)
  • United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1992.
  • Adoption and Children Act 2002

What are the Two Main Laws for Child Protection?

The two main laws for child protection are:

  • The Children Act 1989, and
  • The Children Act 2004.

The 1989 Act establishes several key principles:

  • Parental responsibility
  • The child’s welfare should come first when the court is being asked to make any decision concerning a child
  • The family is best for looking after children unless it’s essential to interfere in family life.

The Children Act 2004 makes various significant changes to the child protection framework.

  • It places a duty on local authorities in England to aim to improve the well-being of children by promoting co-operation with local agencies and key partners.
  • It places a duty on various agencies to ensure that they account for the safeguarding of children when carrying out their duties. These agencies include local authorities, the police and local health services.
  • It sets out roles and responsibilities for safeguarding partners to determine how local safeguarding arrangements should work.

The changes in the 2004 act came into force following an official enquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié led by Lord Lamming.

Further changes in the law governing child protection have come from the Children and Social Work Act 2017.

The key provisions of the Act include:

  • Establishing the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel to review and report on serious child protection cases
  • Local safeguarding partners to replace Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards (LSCBs) and publish reports on reviews of local safeguarding practices
  • The requirement to review each death of a locally resident child and identify local matters concerning the public health and safety of children
  • Local authorities to appoint personal advisors for people up to the age of 25 who are leaving care
  • Social Work England created as a regulatory body
  • Relationships education to be provided in primary schools and relationships and sex education in secondary schools.

What are the Five Ps in Child Protection?

The five Ps in child protection are:

  • Prevention
  • Paramountcy
  • Partnership
  • Protection
  • Parental responsibility.


Prevention refers to activities that will reduce or deter specific or predictable problems, protect a child’s wellbeing or promote certain outcomes or behaviours.

An essential aspect of prevention is providing help early on to promote the welfare of children. Early help can prevent problems from occurring later on in someone’s life. It also provides support as soon as a problem arises.

Prevention relies on local agencies and organisations having effective ways of identifying emerging problems.


Paramountcy means putting the child’s best interests and welfare first. Under the Children Act 1989, the court must make the child’s welfare a paramount consideration when considering decisions affecting their upbringing or the administration of property or income arising from it.


As set out in various pieces of legislation, the law expects local safeguarding agencies to work together to protect children.

Under the law, there is a statutory duty for the following agencies to work in partnership to promote the welfare of children:

  • Local authorities
  • NHS trusts and services
  • Police
  • Young offenders institutions and probation services.


Protection is self-explanatory as a principle in child protection. The Department for Education publishes special guidance for this:

  • Everyone who works with children has a responsibility to keep them safe
  • Everyone coming into contact with children and families must play a role in sharing information and identifying any concerns.

Parental Responsibility

There is a set of legal rights and responsibilities that define parental responsibility.

These include:

  • Who looks after a child
  • Where a child lives
  • How a child is educated.

Where the court issues a care order (either as an interim or a final order), the local authority and parents share parental responsibility for the child. The local authority will have overriding parental responsibility, meaning they can make decisions for a child even if the parents disagree.

How Does the Child Protection System Work?

Statutory safeguarding partners – local authorities, clinical commissioning groups, and the police – must work with other agencies to protect and promote the welfare of children. This includes identifying and supporting those children who are at risk of harm.

Where someone who works with children has concerns about their welfare, they should report these concerns to the agencies involved in safeguarding.

Anyone working in certain agencies not reporting suspected cases of abuse may end up facing disciplinary proceedings.

Methods for reporting concerns about a child’s welfare include:

  • Following the organisation’s own established safeguarding policies and procedures
  • Contacting the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 500 or emailing
  • Contacting local child protection services
  • Contacting the police – by calling 999 if the child is in immediate danger.

How do Local Authorities Deal with Child Protection Concerns?

Where there are concerns about a child’s welfare, the local authority has the responsibility to investigate.

If there is immediate danger to the child, the local authority, the NSPCC or an authorised person can act through the courts.

The court may issue:

  • An emergency protection order
  • An exclusion order to remove an abusive person from a home
  • A child assessment order for a children’s social worker to assess the child’s needs without the consent of parents or carers.

The police can remove the child to a place of safety for up to 72 hours without needing a court order first.

Before the end of this period, the local authority will need to have applied to the Court for an order to continue to keep the child in a place of safety, unless alternative arrangements have been made which satisfy the local authority that the child will be safe.

If there is no immediate danger to the child, the local authority will arrange an assessment of the child’s needs.

This will determine whether:

  • The child requires immediate protection therefore this requires immediate action
  • The child should be assessed under section 17 of the Children Act 1989
  • There is reasonable cause to suspect the child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm, and whether the local authority should make enquiries and assess the child under the Children Act
  • The child or the child’s family requires services and what these will be
  • The local authority should make further specialist assessments to help it decide on taking further action.

Where an investigation suggests the child is suffering significant harm or is at risk of this happening, the local authority will hold a strategy discussion. This will focus on whether to launch a section 47 enquiry.

Under section 47 of the Children Act, the local authority must investigate if it has reasonable cause to suspect the child is suffering or will suffer harm.

What is a Child Protection Conference?

There will be a child protection case conference if an assessment has shown that a child is at risk of significant harm. This must take place within 15 days of a strategy discussion.

At this case conference, all the relevant professionals involved share information about the situation.

They can identify risks and look at what actions to take to protect the child.

The conference will look at:

  • Findings from the child protection investigation
  • Background information about the child and family
  • Any ongoing assessments.

Agencies attending the case conference include:

  • Social services, the police and health services
  • People involved working with the child and their family, such as a GP and the child’s school
  • Family members.

Where it’s appropriate, the child may also attend the case conference.

The professionals involved will draft a child protection plan and a core group of professionals and family members will implement it.

How Does a Child Protection Plan Work?

This plan sets out the actions required to promote the child’s welfare and keep them safe from harm.

It will also state who will implement these measures. People carrying out the plan can include family members.

There will be regular child protection conferences following this to review the plan continuously until the child is no longer considered at risk or is taken into care.

If the subsequent assessment determines that the parents or carers cannot provide safe or appropriate care for the child, the local authority may decide to ask a Court for permission to take the child into care.

These care proceedings should only begin if all efforts to keep the child with their family have been unsuccessful.

There will be a final attempt to avoid going to court by inviting the parents to attend a pre-proceedings meeting.

Usually, care proceedings take place in the Family Court. Sometimes there are more complex cases that involve the High Court.

The child will have a children’s guardian to represent them at court. The guardian, who is independent of the local authority, will instruct a solicitor to act for the child. Where the child is mature enough, they can sometimes appoint their own solicitor.

The social worker assigned to the child will produce a care plan. This should help the court decide the care arrangements for the child.

If necessary, the court will make a care order, giving parental responsibility for the child to the local authority.

The court will only do this if:

  • The child is suffering significant harm or is likely to, and
  • Making a court order would be better for the child than not making one.

For a care order to be made, the harm the child is suffering must be found to be due to either:

  • The care they’re getting, or will receive if there is no court order made, not being what is reasonable to expect a parent to give or
  • They are beyond parental control.

Under the care order, the local authority has joint parental responsibility with the child’s parents. However, the local authority can decide the parents’ level of involvement in the child’s care.

Two further orders from the court will affect this level of involvement:

  • A placement order allows for the authority to place a child with prospective adopters, pre-adoption, if the authority thinks this is best for the child.  A Placement Order will only ever be made if the Court is satisfied that “nothing else will do” and that all other options have been explored and are not viable.
  • An adoption order transfers parental responsibility to the adoptive parents.

The court will only issue an adoptive order following extensive enquiries that show this option is in the child’s best interests.

When the adoption order comes into effect, the care order ends. Unless this happens, the care order usually lasts until the child turns 18.

Local authorities can continue to promote the interests of care-leavers until they are 21. If the young person concerned wants it, this support can continue until they are 25.

Help with Pre-Proceedings and Child Protection

Parents or carers invited to a pre-proceedings meeting (sometimes called a PLO or Public Law Outline meeting) by local social services should seek legal support and advice.

Legal advice and support is free and should be obtained as soon as the local authority send a letter outlining this course of action.

In fact, the official letter inviting them to the meeting will tell them to do this.

The solicitor will provide advice about the meeting and what can happen during it and will also attend the meeting.

However, the ultimate responsibility for convincing social services that the child is not at risk will belong to the parents.

For help with pre-proceedings or for more information about the child protection system, please contact us.