Children Act 1989

"An Act to reform the law relating to children; to provide for local authority services for children in need and others; to amend the law with respect to children’s homes, community homes, voluntary homes and voluntary organisations; to make provision with respect to fostering, child minding and day care for young children and adoption; and for connected purposes."  November 1989


The Children Act 1989 aimed interalia to strengthen protections for children and clarify and simplify the existing patchwork of legislation.

The drive for reform came on the back of several high-profile child abuse cases and an inquiry into the actions of "over-zealous" social workers in Cleveland (Laver, 2018). The legislation, which brought together public and private law for the first time, was informed by a review and subsequent White Paper on child care law and a Law Commission report on child custody and guardianship.

The 1989 Act centers on the idea children are best cared for within their own families and every effort should be made to support that, where possible. It emphasises that the child's welfare is paramount when making decisions about their upbringing and their wishes and feelings should be taken into account. Delays in making decisions are likely to have a negative impact. It also established the principle of "parental responsibility".

The act sets out in detail what local authorities, courts and other agencies should do to protect the welfare of children. Under section 47 local authorities have a duty to investigate if they suspect a child is at risk of significant harm, including physical and sexual abuse or treatment likely to damage a child's health or development. Section 17 charges councils with a duty to provide services for "children in need" and their families.

Since the act was passed, there has been a raft of other legislation to boost child protection including the Children Act 2004 - which created the statutory role of director of children's services - and more recently the Children and Social Work Act 2017 and similar legislation in the devolved countries.


A key principle of the Children Act 1989 is that children are best looked after within their families, with their parents playing a full part in their lives, unless compulsory intervention in family life is necessary.

That principle is reflected in: 

  •  the concept of parental responsibility;
  •  the ability of unmarried fathers to share that responsibility by agreement with the mother, by joint registration at birth or by court order;
  •  the local authority’s functions to provide services which support children and their families;
  •  the local authority’s duty to return a looked after child to his/her family unless this is against his/her interests; and
  •  the local authority’s duty, unless it is not reasonably practicable or consistent with his/her welfare, to endeavour to promote contact between a looked after child and his/her parents or others.

Principles in relation to children and their families;

  •  Time is a crucial element in work with children and should be reckoned in days and months rather than years.
  •  Parents should be expected and enabled to retain their responsibilities and to remain as closely involved as is consistent with their child’s welfare, even if that child cannot live at home either temporarily or permanently.
  •  If children have to live apart from their family, both they and their parents should be given adequate information and helped to consider alternatives and contribute to the making of an informed choice about the most appropriate form of care.
  •  Continuity of relationships is important and attachments should be respected, sustained and developed.
  •  A change of home, carer, social worker or school almost always carries some risk to a child’s development and welfare.
  •  All children need to develop their own identity, including self-confidence and a sense of self-worth.

Care and supervision orders are granted by the court to safeguard the welfare of a child. They are usually made on the application of a local authority.

Under s 31(2) of the Children Act 1989, a court may only issue a care or supervision order if it is satisfied that:

  • the child concerned is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm; and
  • that the harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to the care given to the child, or likely to be given to them if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to them, or the child’s being beyond parental control.

An application for a care or supervision order may be made on its own or alongside any other family proceedings. The courts cannot issue an order in respect of a child who has reached the age of 17, or 16 if the child is married.


Reference: In the APA referencing system, Acts of Parliament do not need including in the reference list. On the first mention of the Act, a full citation is given in the text (ie. the name of the Act with date)


editors comments


The principles above reflect the intention in the Children Act 1989; that parents should be encouraged to exercise their responsibility for their child’s welfare in a constructive way and that where compulsory intervention in the family is necessary it should, where possible, support rather than undermine the parental role. The 1989 Act places a strong emphasis on the local authority working in partnership with parents when undertaking their statutory functions.

The law about looked-after children is contained in sections 20-30 of the Children Act 1989.



 Children Act 1989 - latest version


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