Experiences of magistrates making decisions in care proceedings involving parents with learning disabilities


The combination of family support and responsive services has been identified as critical to the development of a positive parenting context parents with learning disabilities. But the current evidence suggests that such parents are still likely to have their children permanently removed from their care.

A recent Australian study suggested that for some learning disabled parents, this removal of a child was not a one-off experience for parents

Many of the published studies thus far have focused, quite rightly on the experience of parents with learning disabilities and the organisation and delivery of social and health care support, but there has been little investigation of what happens in the magistrates’ court when cases relating to the potential for removal of children are heard.

The researchers in this small study set out to look at the experience of magistrates making decisions in care proceedings involving parents with learning disabilities.

What they did was develop a semi structured interview questionnaire which they administered to four family court magistrates.

What they found was that the magistrates distinguished between their own ability to deal with the complexity of conceptualising learning disabilities and that of others in the system.

They believed this ability to work with this complexity enabled them to be more proactive when they were presented with expert opinion in their courts.

They identified four main influences that they felt were at play when they were determining the best interests of the child:

  • timescale and age of the child
  • expert opinion
  • parenting abilities
  • support

Like many others who play a professional role in the system, they spoke of the impact of their experience of people with learning disabilities outside the court system and how this affected their decision making. They did however also call for more training for magistrates about learning disabilities.

This is obviously a very small study, but as the first to look at the perceptions and understanding of magistrates, who can play an important role in the lives of some parents with learning disabilities, its findings can help to shed light on this important part of a ‘responsive service’ system as outlined in Conder et al’s article, referenced above.

A qualitative exploration of the views and experiences of family court magistrates making decisions in care proceedings involving parents with learning disabilities, Kollinsky L et al., in British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 41: 86–93.

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John Northfield

After qualifying as a social worker, John worked in community learning disability teams before getting involved in a number of long-stay hospital closure programmes, working to develop individual plans for people moving into their own homes. He worked for BILD, helping to develop the Quality Network and was editorial lead for the NHS electronic library learning disabilities specialist collection. This led him to found the Learning Disabilities Elf site with Andre Tomlin as a way of making the evidence accessible to practitioners in health and social care. Most recently he has worked as part of Mencap's national quality team and also been involved in a number of national website developments, including the General Medical Council's learning disabilities site.

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