Looked-after children

Children in care are children who are ‘looked after’ by a local authority under the Children Act 1989 and Social Services and Well-being Act 2014. The acronym LAC is sometimes seen as a shorthand for looked-after children, as in ‘LAC Review’.

Sections 20-30 Children Act 1989 apply to looked-after children in England.

From April 2016, this part of the Children Act no longer applies in Wales and sections 20-30 are replaced by Part 6 of the Social Services and Well-being Act 2014.

This table by AFA Cymru sets out the different sections in Part III Children Act 1989 as now contained in Part 6 Social Services and Well-being Act 2014, together with associated regulations and guidance.

Section 76 of the 2014 Act (previously section 20 1989 Act) ‘voluntary accommodation’

Children may become looked after either through agreement under section 76 or under a court order. There is however a very important difference between s 76 and court involvement. Parents retain all their legal rights when a child is accommodated under s 76  and can require the child’s return at any stage (unless this is a young person aged 16 or 17 who is requesting the accommodation).

Section 76 arrangements may not be appropriate, and may be in breach of human rights principles, in the following situations:

  1. where the parent was not capable of giving fully informed consent
  2. removal of a new born baby
  3. the child is at risk of abuse or neglect to the extent that the threshold criteria for care proceedings is reached
  4. extended use of s 20 before a care application is made, delaying planning for a permanent placement.

Practice guidance that covers local authorities in Wales, as well as England, was issued in 2016 and can be downloaded here.

On the other hand, s 76 accommodation should always be used when a 16 or 17 year old presents as homeless, unless the young person has given fully informed agreement that their welfare will not be seriously prejudiced by refusing s 76 services.

A guide to the use of section 20/section 76, following recent case law, is available at the Transparency Project website.


The local authority has a duty to promote contact between a looked-after child and their parents, relatives and friends.  Section 95 Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 (previously Schedule 2 paragraph 15 Children Act 1989) says:

(1) Where a child is being looked after by a local authority, the authority must, unless it is not reasonably practicable or consistent with the child’s wellbeing, promote contact between the child and—

(a) his parents;

(b) any person who is not a parent of his but who has parental responsibility for him; and

(c) any relative, friend or other person connected with him.

(2) Where a child is being looked after by a local authority, the authority must take such steps as are reasonably practicable to secure that—

(a) his parents; and

(b) any person who is not a parent of his but who has parental responsibility for him,

are kept informed of where he is being accommodated; and

(3) every such person shall secure that the authority are kept informed of his or her address.

There is a stronger requirement regarding contact, under section 34 Children Act 1989,  if court proceedings are ongoing or a care order has been made. This is explained in the Family Court  page. Section 34 still applies in both Wales and England.

Homeless young people

Local authorities have a duty to provide accommodation for young people aged 16 and 17  who cannot safely live at home. The Children Act 1989 has been interpreted by the courts to clarify that it takes precedence over the homelessness provisions of the Housing Act. If a young person aged 16 or 17 seeks help from the local authority because of homelessness, their needs should have been assessed under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 and if they were found in need of accommodation they should become a looked-after child under section 20. This legal principle continues with regard to the looked-after provisions under the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014.

Recently revised statutory guidance on housing law states that homeless young people should not be placed in  bed and breakfast accommodation.

Planning and review

The relevant regulations are here. The associated Code of Practice about care planning and review meetings is here. Under the regulations, a review meeting must be held within four weeks of a child becoming looked after, with a second meeting within the next three months, and then at least every subsequent six months. The views of the child and his/her parents should be sought before each review meeting. The role of the independent reviewing officer to monitor the plan and to involve the child, is set out on pages 74-79 of the Code.

Leaving care

Young people who have been looked after for more than 13 weeks are entitled to support until at least the age of 21. The legal duties of the local authority toward young people who are leaving, or have left, care are explained in the Part 6 Code pages 80-141.

Advice for care leavers about housing is available from Shelter.