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FAQs

Many children have similar legal problems. In this section you can find responses to frequently asked legal questions. If you have a legal problem, you should try and get help from a lawyer or another organisation. You can find out how to get help here

Below is a list of FAQs

Question

“My parents are divorced.  I live with my mother, but I have to stay with my father in the country at weekends.  This was settled in a court case.  I’m involved in a lot of weekend activities, some at my school, and I don’t want to miss them.  My mum says I have to go to my father, she’ll get into trouble if I don’t. Is this true?”

Answer

Your mother is right that she could get into trouble. She risks punishment for being “in contempt of court” if she doesn’t do her best to follow what the court ordered about your contact with your father. 

The first thing is to try to sort this out without lawyers. Can you explain to your father how you feel?  He may well be sympathetic, particularly if you can suggest other contact arrangements.  The court will change the order if everyone is in agreement.  Many orders will not have to be returned to court if everyone agrees to the changes as the lawyers or judges who write the orders often include a paragraph allowing the parents to agree to different contact arrangements.  It would be sensible for your parents to sign a written agreement setting out any changes agreed.

Otherwise you may have to go back to court.  Your mother has an automatic right to apply for a change in the order but if there’s a problem with this you can also ask permission to do this yourself, with your own lawyer.  If your father is opposed to the proposed change the court may ask for a welfare report on your best interests from a social worker (a CAFCASS reporter). The more mature you are, the more seriously the reporter and court will take your wishes – but the wishes of children of any age should never be ignored. For example it should respect your arguments about not missing out on school-based activities.   

Fuller Answer

Please read the fuller answer for more information.

You can also read our more general factsheet on what happens when parents split up

What other organisations say:

The Government

CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service)

The Children’s Legal Centre

Question

“My sister and I have been in care for six months. The social workers decided that she’s going to a foster home and I’m going to a children’s home fifty miles away.  We don’t want to be separated and I don’t want to leave this area.  What can I do?”

Answer

There is quite a lot you can do in a situation like this.  For example, you can make an official complaint to the local authority about this decision, you can complain to the ombudsman or to other official agencies and you can ask a lawyer about taking a type of court case called a ‘judicial review’, for which you may well be entitled to claim legal aid to pay all your legal costs. 

This is because you have special rights as a young person being looked after by a local authority to be placed with your sister and kept in your local area, as well as a human right in law to “family life”.  These are rights that you can enforce, although you may well need a good lawyer who specialises in this area to help you.

The only way that the local authority can justify its decision is to show that the new placements are in the best interests of you and your sister. You do not say why they’ve made this decision so we can’t advise fully on this possibility. But from what you’ve told us it sounds like you would be able to challenge this decision, if necessary through the courts.

Fuller Answer

Please read the fuller answer for more information.

What other organisations say:

Children’s Rights Director

Children’s Legal Centre

Question

“My parents have booked tickets for the family to go to Pakistan in the summer holiday. I don’t want to go - I think they’ve organised a marriage for me.”

Answer

No one should force you to get married, whatever your age, sex, sexuality, religion or culture.  If you are right and your parents are planning to make you marry someone in Pakistan and are using some form of abuse or pressure then, whatever your age and whatever your parents reasons for wanting you to marry, this is a “forced marriage”.

Forced marriage is an abuse of your human rights and a form of child abuse. Although there is no specific criminal offence in England yet of forcing someone to marry (though the government has committed to doing this), if your parents or relatives did force you to marry, they could be prosecuted for criminal offences like abduction, kidnapping and aiding rape, and they could be prosecuted.

We are sure that you would like to resolve this situation without damaging your relationship with your parents or getting them into trouble. The difficulty is that once you are out of the country it becomes much harder to stop a forced marriage. Because of this, it is important that you seek advice as soon as possible from the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), who will treat your information in confidence. They will prepare a plan with you that best meets your needs.

One option is for you (or someone on your behalf like the police or a support agency) to apply to the court for a Forced Marriage Protection Order. The order would protect you by, for example, stopping your parents/family from taking you abroad, or requiring them to hand over your passport or travel documents. There are also other forms of legal protection which may be suitable, depending on the specific circumstances. The FMU can advise you about this.

Whatever you are thinking of doing, it would be sensible to talk to an adult you feel you can trust on this issue or the FMU.

You need to think very carefully before you go Pakistan. Once abroad it will be much harder to get help. If you decide to go or have to go, there are a few things you can do before you go to make it easier to get help when you are there. The FMU can advise you about these things and you can give them the information they will need to be able to help you.

If you did go and found that you were being forced into a marriage you did not want then the normal course of action would be to try and get you returned or “repatriated” to England. Again, the FMU can advise you about this and about getting financial, social and practical help on your return to the UK.

In an emergency in the UK, ring 999 and ask for the police, telling them as much as you can about where you are and what is happening to you.

Fuller Answer

Please read the fuller answer for more information.

Other organisations that can give you confidential advice and information:

The Police - in an emergency situation

National Domestic Violence Helpline

ChildLine

Muslim Youth Helpline

Asian Family Counselling Service

Ashiana Project - for women from the Asian, Turkish & Iranian community

Reunite International Child Abduction Centre

What other organsiations say about this question:

The Forced Marriage Unit (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

ForcedMarriage.net

Coram Children’s Legal Centre

Question

“Our council announced that the toy library and the singing and story-telling sessions at the children’s library are going to be closed as part of the cuts.  I have two children under four and the place is a great help for us – the little ones love it and I meet other mums. Is there any way of stopping this?”

Answer

Councils have a lot of discretion over how they spend their budget.  Nonetheless there are legal duties placed on the council which you can use to persuade it to think again (see fuller answer below), particularly if you can show it really is a lifeline for families in need and that it has a wide mix of users. The more allies you have the better. Is there an action group?  If not, talk to the other parents about setting one up.  Try to get support from local schools, nurseries and early years centres, professionals like social workers and doctors, local newspapers, radio and TV stations, local authority councillors and MPs. 

Fuller Answer

Please read the fuller answer for more information.

Question

“My life is hell at school because some of the other pupils decided I’m gay and bully me about it all the time, physically and verbally and in texts and on Facebook.  My parents complained to the head-teacher but the school hasn’t done anything about it.  What can I do?”

Answer

You don’t say if you are gay (or think you might be).  Whether you are or are not isn’t the point: bullying is always wrong. 

There are a lot of things you or your parents can do to make the school take its responsibilities seriously, to stop the bullies’ activities and to make yourself feel less isolated and vulnerable.  The Government has passed laws on bullying and there are a number of organisations happy to support you and put you in touch with other young people in the same situation as you.  As a last resort, you are protected by criminal laws on assault and harassment – the laws that adults use when they are being bullied in the workplace, for example.  Just because you are a school pupil does not mean you have to suffer more than an adult does at work.

Having said that, we also recognise that school-life is very complicated and you will have to use your judgement about what is best to do.  Sometimes one small action will make bullies stop, or it just disappears on its own, or you find you can ignore it.  You may have to decide about how much action you want to take towards the bullies and whether this will help more or less in the long run.  We can’t make these decisions for you – but you need not be alone and hopefully you will find lots of friends and allies in the school as well as outside it.

Fuller Answer

Please read the fuller answer for more information.

What other organisations say about this question

ChildLine including  Block the cyber bullying

Beatbullying  including CyberMentors online service ‘a safe social networking site, where young people can go if they’re being bullied or cyberbullied and to get information, help, and support from other young people’. Plus teacher-training on homophobic bullying

Kidscape including strategies for dealing with bullying

Stonewall campaigns against homophobic bullying in schools and runs the “Schools champion” programme to help schools fulfil their Ofsted requirements.

The  Antibullying Alliance  (a coalition of adult organisations)

ACE, the Advisory Centre for education for parents

Children’s Legal Centre

The Restorative Justice Council promotes action on school bullying that seeks to resolve conflict and repair harm by getting everyone concerned into positive communication with each other

Citizen's Advice Bureau

Question

“My mother read my diary. She found out that I’d pretended to be at school when I was really out with friends. Now she’s taken my mobile away and said I can’t go out at all for a month. I’m 12. Don’t I have any rights?”

Answer

Your mother is legally responsible for you until you turn 18 - this is known as parental responsibility. This means she has rights and responsibilities for your upbringing and care, including specific things like where you live, your education and choice of religion. She may share this responsibility (for example with your father) depending on your particular circumstances but if she is the one caring for you everyday she will usually make day to day decisions, which includes deciding to punish you if you have done something she feels is wrong or dangerous. 

In carrying out her parental responsibility your mother should be guided by what is in your best interests and as you get older she should use her responsibility in a way that reflects your developing capacity and maturity and respects your wishes and feelings. However, the law recognises that, in order to carry out her parental responsibility, your mother has powers to control and direct your behaviour, making sure your best interests are at the centre of any decision she makes.

The exact extent of parental powers is not set down in law. This means that disputes between parents and children over major issues, like medical treatment, have to be settled by the courts.  However, something like parents reading a child’s diary would almost certainly be regarded as too trivial for a court to consider and even if it did, the court would probably uphold the parents’ actions.  But just because parents can read their children’s diaries does not mean that they should.  We believe that children are entitled to privacy and to respect, and that the trust that should exist between parent and child can often be damaged by an unreasonable invasion of privacy.

It is likely that the main reason for your punishment is that you missed school to go out with friends. You are required in law to be in full-time education until you are at the school leaving age, currently 16. The law makes your mother responsible for you attending school regularly and she could be prosecuted or have other actions taken against her by the local authority for not making sure that you do. 

Your mother has the right to raise and discipline you as she sees fit, provided what she does is within the law. The law, for example, protects you from significant harm or likely significant harm. These punishments fall well within her rights as parent.

You have no legal right to a mobile phone and, even if you own the phone (because it was a present or you earned the money to pay for it), your mother is entitled to take it away. In terms of being grounded, provided she does not go beyond what would be considered reasonable parental discipline and does not break any laws, your mother is allowed to stop you from going out. But she must let you leave the house to go to school and, whilst she would be allowed to lock doors and windows if she wanted to, she cannot use physical force to stop you from going out, like tying you to a chair.  On the other hand, if you did go out without permission you might suffer a further, even less pleasant, punishment.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (the UNCRC) stresses the importance of giving you an opportunity (appropriate to your age and maturity) to say what you think should happen and have your opinions taken into account. It also encourages your mother (and other adults) to listen to your opinions and involve you in decision-making when making choices that affect you. Whilst you cannot insist on these rights being defended in an English court, it may be worth talking to your mother in a calm moment, and try to explain to her how you feel about her reading your diary and the punishments she has imposed. She may still be thinking of you as a young child and it is always good for parents to understand how their children are changing and growing up.

Fuller Answer

Please read the fuller answer for more information.

Other organisations that can give you confidential advice and information on this question

Coram Children’s Legal Centre

ChildLine

Question

“I’m 15 and I’m a patient in an adolescent psychiatric ward because I got very stressed and started cutting myself.  I don’t want to be here and I don’t think it’s helping me. They say that because I’m a voluntary patient I can’t appeal the placement. But I never volunteered to come, my parents put me here.”

Answer 

Young people of 16 and over can be admitted to a psychiatric unit only if they have agreed or a legal order has been made for their compulsory admission. But unfortunately young people under 16 like you can be admitted as “voluntary” patients by their parents even when it is against their wishes and they have been deemed competent to make such decisions in their own right.

There is no appeal against this “voluntary” (or informal) admission of children and young people.  CRAE believes that the lack of appeal amounts to a breach of children’s rights to a fair hearing and may also result in unlawful detention known as a “deprivation of liberty”.

Your best option is to convince the doctors that you have sufficient capacity to make the decisions about your treatment.  If you can do that, they ought to seek legal advice and consider putting your case to the courts. Alternatively, they may decide to apply for a “section” under the Mental Health Act for your compulsory treatment, which you have a right to contest and appeal.

Fuller Answer

Please read the fuller answer for more information.

What other organisations say about this question

Great Ormond Street Hospital advice for teenagers

Mind

Young Minds

Question

“My mum gave me a hair cut that included shaving patterns into my hair.  The school has excluded me until they grow out.  My parents says they’re being racist and I’m thinking, what has hairstyle to do with education?”

Answer

Unfortunately, though we agree that hairstyles have nothing to do with education, head-teachers can currently exclude pupils for breaches of school rules on appearance so long as this is reasonable, proportionate and non-discriminatory. If you and your parents can show that the hairstyle is common amongst people with your culture or ethnic group, then you might have a case that it was “indirect discrimination”. There may well also be a case that the decision to exclude you was disproportionate, in that it went beyond what was necessary to achieve good discipline in the school.

The school must notify your parents about the exclusion and arrangements for your education out of school. If your hair is going to take more than five days to grow out then your parents can ask the school’s governors to consider lifting the exclusion.  If your hair will take more than 15 days the governors must meet to consider reinstatement and must take into account your views as well as your parents' views. 

Your school will have a complaints procedure, and you also have a right to complain to the Department for Education.  A lawyer can advise you whether your case is strong enough to challenge under the Equality Act 2010.

Fuller Answer

Please read the fuller answer for more information.

What other organisations say about this question

The Equality and Human Rights Commission

The Children’s Legal Centre

Citizens Advice Bureau

Question

“My nine year old son attends an autistic school but I don’t think he is either happy or making much progress. I would like him to go to an ordinary school: is that not possible?”

Answer

You do not say whether or not your son has a Special Educational Needs (SEN) statement.

If he doesn’t, except in certain limited circumstances, he must be educated in a mainstream school.

If he does, then having expressed a preference for a mainstream school, your wishes must be met unless your son’s attendance would disrupt the “efficient education” of the other children he would be educated with and the school cannot take reasonable steps to avoid this. This is a very high test for the school and in the large majority of cases where parents request a mainstream school this will be allowed.

Having expressed a preference for a mainstream school, the onus is on the local education authority (LEA) to prove there is a valid reason for not sending your son to this type of school.

You may have grounds for appeal to the First Tier Tribunal (the Tribunal), a specialist SEN and Disability tribunal, in relation to Part 4 of your child’s statement if the LEA does not agree to send your son to a mainstream school or a particular mainstream school refuses him a place on the grounds of his autism.

Even if your son is not recognised as having SEN he should nonetheless be accepted to be ‘disabled’ under the Equality Act 2010, and neither the school nor the LEA should discriminate against your son on the basis of disability. You would need to take legal advice in the specific circumstances of the case.

The LEA must offer you information about schools available locally. You can ask for a more comprehensive list if you feel you don't have enough information. They must explain their decision about where to place your son if necessary.

If you cannot find a suitable school among the maintained schools in your area, you can look further afield to maintained schools in other local authorities. The same legal obligations to comply with your choice, unless the LEA can show a lawful reason not to do so, apply to maintained schools outside your area.

Having expressed a preference for a mainstream school, the onus is on the LEA to prove there is a valid reason for not sending your son to this type of school.

You may have grounds for appeal if the LEA does not agree to send your son to a mainstream school or a particular mainstream school refuses him a place on the grounds of his autism.

On a practical level, before making any decision, if you have not already done so, it would be sensible to identify why your son is not happy or making much progress. Talk over your concerns with your child’s teacher or head teacher or any other professional working with him. Wherever your son is educated, the quality of that education and support should meet his specific needs. 

Fuller Answer

Please read the fuller answer for more information.

Other organisations that can give you confidential advice and information:

If you are having problems in any of these areas we would recommend seeking specialist advice from your local Parent Partnership Service or from one of the helplines listed below. All provide advice and support on education for children with autism or special educational needs.

Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS)

Gabbitas Education Consultants - provide a service to parents wanting to find an independent school suitable for their child. They will charge for this service.

National Autistic Society -  Education Rights Service

National Parent Partnership Network (NPPN) 

What other organisations say:

AFASIC - for parents of children and young people who have a speech and language impairment. 

IPSEA (Independent Panel for Special Education Advice)

Network 81

 

Question

“I’m 14. My parents excuse me from religious education and sex education but I want to attend both. Surely I’m old enough to decide this for myself?”

Answer

Your right to education does not give you the right to learn whatever you want, wherever you want.  

If you go to a maintained school (a school which is not a private school), the law gives your parents the right to withdraw you (up until you leave school) from all or part of religious education (RE) and/or from sex and relationship education (SRE) other than the sex education that is in the National Curriculum (and usually taught through science classes). Your parents do not have to give a reason and the school must comply with their request. CRAE does not support this position and would like to see it challenged in law.

Having withdrawn you from SRE at school, it can be argued that your parents have a responsibility (if you go to a maintained school) to provide alternative SRE. The school will normally help them in doing this.

Having been withdrawn from RE at school, the law provides for alternative arrangements to be made for RE of the kind your parents want you to receive. This could be provided at your school or a different school or, if neither is practical, outside arrangements can be made to provide you with the kind of RE that your parents want.

If you go a private school then whether your parents have the right to withdraw you from RE and/or from SRE depends on the contract between your parents and the school. If you attend a private school, it might be sensible to check with the school secretary or head whether the contract with the school allows your parents to withdraw you  - though it is likely the school would have done something about your non attendance if not.

Whether you attend a private or maintained school, you could suggest to your parents that they talk to the school about their concerns with you attending SRE and RE. Depending on the reasons why they do not want you to attend these classes, this may give them the reassurance they need to let you attend some or all of the classes.

If having spoken to your parents they still do not want to let you attend SRE or RE classes at school, you could ask the courts to make an order requiring your parents to let you attend. You would need to get the court’s permission to apply. 

If you did this and were refused permission to apply to court you could contact CRAE to discuss the possibility of challenging this refusal under human rights law.  Alternatively, if you were allowed to apply to court and the court upheld your parents’ rights to withdraw you from SRE we would also be happy to advise on an appeal as there are good arguments for saying that you have a right to SRE.  The situation is different where RE is concerned.  You might have a case if you were either forced to or forbidden to attend a particular form of worship against your wishes.

Fuller Answer

Please read the fuller answer for more information.

Other organisations that can give you confidential advice and information:

Coram Children’s Legal Centre

ChildLine

Citizen's Advice Bureau

Question

"I want to find a lawyer."

Answer

If you need a lawyer, this will be a solicitor (barristers are the ones that appear in court, instructed by the solicitor). You’ll need someone with experience in the appropriate area of law. Details of solicitors and their specialities can be obtained from the Law Society or the Legal Services Commission.  The Law Society also accredits lawyers in particular areas of law, including children, family, crime, immigration, mediation and mental health. 

Solicitors who are experienced in children’s cases are also likely to be members of the Association of Lawyers for Children or Resolution (the Solicitors Family Law Association).

If you have been charged by the police, you can get representation from a lawyer under the duty solicitors scheme but are also free to choose your own lawyer.

Ask your local advice centres like the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) or law centre if they can recommend a lawyer: they are likely to know who is energetic and effective.

The CAB also explains the rules about paying for a lawyer. People on low incomes may receive legal aid.  At the beginning of any consultation the solicitor should tell you about the likely cost of the case, how their charges are calculated and keep you informed about what their costs are throughout. 

The Local Government Ombudsman investigates if you have a problem with the way a local authority (council or borough) has delivered – or failed to deliver – a service and the way it made a decision. The Ombudsman has powers to obtain information and to make recommendations. The local authority doesn’t have to follow these recommendation but it often does.

The services the Ombudsman investigates include social services, some aspects of education, the care system, housing, welfare benefits and anti-social behaviour. Until recently the Ombudsman also looked at complaints about schools and special educational needs provision, but since August 2012 these complaints are now being handled by the Department for Education.

The sort of problems the Ombudsman will investigate include if the local authority:

  • takes too long to do something;
  • does not follow its own rules or the law;
  • breaks its promises;
  • treats you unfairly;
  • gives you wrong information or bad advice;
  • puts you to avoidable expense trouble or inconvenience.

It won’t investigate:

  • something very trivial;
  • if the matter has been resolved;
  • the content of services or decisions if there is no error in the procedure and you just don’t agree with them – for example the behaviour policies of a school or a decision about placement and contact in care;
  • if there is a more appropriate way to deal with your complaint, like a tribunal;
  • if the problem occurred more than a year ago (unless there is a good reason for the delay);
  • if it has already gone to a court or tribunal.

You can only go to the Ombudsman if you have already tried and failed to sort the matter out through any existing complaints procedure. Special investigators are employed to deal with complaints from children and young people.

Question

“What is judicial review?”

Answer

Judicial review is a case taken in the High Court to challenge the actions or decisions of an organisation performing a public function.  The grounds will generally be that the action was illegal (either breaking an existing law or because the organisation did not have the power in law to act as it did), or it was irrational (meaning no reasonable organisation would have taken the decision), or that the decision had not been made following the correct procedure. However judicial review is a fast-changing area of law and you will need a specialist lawyer to advise you on whether you have good grounds of challenge.

Organisations performing public functions include local authorities, schools, Ministers and government departments, hospitals, the police, voluntary organisations and courts.

You can apply for a judicial review if you have “sufficient interest”, for example showing you personally suffered from the action being challenged or would be likely to be affected by a new policy. 

The application must be made promptly and at the latest within three months of the decision or action complained of (although this can be extended if the Court thinks there is good reason for the delay or you have a particularly strong case).  You should get legal aid for a judicial review, particularly if it involves a breach of the Human Rights Act.

If you are successful, the court can order the organisation to do something or not do something, including in some cases ordering it to pay you compensation.

Judicial review is a complicated process and you will need advice and assistance from a lawyer.

Question

“What is mediation?”

Answer

Mediators aim to resolve family disputes, for example about contact after parental separation.  The mediator does not make decisions; they help the family members reach mutual agreement.  If mediation works it is cheaper and more constructive than going through an adversarial court action.  For this reason, courts may require parties to attempt mediation before the case comes before them.

Local mediators can be found through the National Family Mediation service. This explains how mediation is paid for (you may be entitled to government aid and sometimes there are lower charges for children’s matters) and directs you to mediators in your area.

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