Children Act 1989

What is the 1989 Children’s Act?

The 1989 Children Act brought together and simplified existing legislation relating to the care of children.  Within family law, it shifted the legislative focus towards keeping families together, and valuing children as individuals with their own interests and rights.

In order to strengthen protection for children, the law now placed new duties on local authorities to provide help to needy children and families in their areas. It’s statutory guidance also resulted in increased specialisation within public care services.

At the time of is establishment, the 1989 Children’s Act had cross-party support, as well as that of charities and people within child-caring professions. Thirty years on, there appears to be enduring support for the legislation itself, but certain criticism of its implementation and resourcing.

The 1989 Children Act laid out the legal framework for Children’s services in the UK.

Why was the 1989 Children Act introduced?

In the years preceding the Children Act 1989, a series of high-profile child abuse cases had triggered a public conversation on how to best protect vulnerable children.

This principle of child-centring was reinforced by Lord Scarman’s 1986 judgement that protecting the welfare of a child could justify a parent’s rights being overridden. The 1989 Act intended to codify this principle, as well as simplify and make child protection law consistent and easily applicable.

At the same time, the preceding Cleveland child abuse scandal, had drawn public attention to the actions of social workers at the time, who it was suggested were too quick to remove children from their families.

In the late 1980s, the National Association of Young People in Care and other non-profit associations petitioned the House of Commons to take the interests of children, as full human beings, into account. This included ‘Black and In Care’s’ concern about the erasure of the identity of children from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, particularly in relation to foster carers.

Main Provisions of the Act

The 1989 Children Act contained the following notable provisions:

Parental Responsibility
Under the Children Act 1989, what was previously legally described as a parent’s rights over their child, now became the parents responsibility towards the child.

This is defined in the Act 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’ and covers parents making decisions on behalf of children in matters of education, health, and daily life.

Parental responsibility diminishes as the child gets older, and he or she is able to make more and more decisions alone.

All mothers automatically gain parental responsibility upon birth, as do fathers in married couples. Under the Act, unmarried fathers can obtain parental responsibility through one of a range of processes, such as appearing on the birth certificate, entering into an agreement with the mother or through a court order. If neither parent is able to take on parental responsibility, a guardian is appointed by a court.

The 1989 Children Act incorporates a ‘No Order’ presumption which assumes that both parents’ involvement in the child’s life is usually a benefit, and that a court’s paramount consideration must show that an alternative arrangement would lead to an improvement in the child’s welfare.

When considering an order, the family court must take into consideration a range of factors, including the child’s needs, wishes, risks, and welfare, and the parents’ capabilities, among others. The child or young person should always be at the centre of decisions about their life, and they should be protected from any unnecessary changes. For example, under the 1989 legislation it became prohibited to change a child’s surname without the approval of every party with parental responsibility.

In terms of specific orders, a Child Arrangement Order decides who the child should live with and lasts until the child’s 16th birthday. A Prohibited Steps Order limits the parental responsibility of a child’s parents. A Specific Issue Order is more targeted, relating to a particular situation.

For situations in which a child may be at serious risk, the 1989 Children Act enabled a court to issue a Care Order or a Supervision Order. The former places the child in the care of Local Authority social services.  A supervision order assigns a supervisor or social worker to observe and directly support the child, with the option of applying to the court for further orders.

In cases of risk of immediate harm, Emergency Protection Orders can be issued to swiftly take children out of dangerous situations.

Local Authorities
The 1989 Act gave local authorities additional responsibilities to contribute to the care of children.

Councils must provide the services required by children in need – defined as children with disabilities or other physical or developmental requirements.

A local authority must also provide accommodation for children who are not in a safe environment or have no adults with parental responsibility to look after them. This could be in a community home, which all local authorities are required to provide.

This local authority duty of care also involves providing young adults and care leavers, who age out of the system, with appropriate support to aid them in gaining independence.

Local authorities must also investigate cases in which it is suspected that a child may be at risk of significant harm.

Other Related Legislation

The 1989 Children Act was followed by the 2004 Children’s Act. This 2004 Children’s Act does not replace the 1989 legislation but develops a number of its principles, most notably by extending the responsibility for promoting the welfare and wellbeing of children to all who work with them.

The 2004 Children’s Act also created the role of a Children’s Commissioner, and that of a Director of Children’s Services within a local authority.

This 2004 Children’ Act was in turn followed by the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, which introduced further regulation regarding official intervention in children’s lives

The Children and Social Work Act 2017 also expanded on the 1989 Act by detailing what is expected of local authorities when acting as parents for children in care. It also established a central Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel.

1989 Children Act in Full

The Children Act 1989 can be read in full here.