Grandparents have been beating a path to the courts to take care of grandchildren by applying for Special Guardianship Orders (SGOs).

Over the last four years there has been almost a 50 per cent increase in their use in England and Wales.

SGOs were introduced almost a decade ago. Over the last few years their use has increased, with applications steadily climbing to reach almost 2,000 in 2014. It is not just grandparents who can apply, and I have dealt with applications over the years by grandparents, great grandparents, aunts and uncles, older siblings and friends of the family, as well as foster carers who have decided SGO seems more suitable.

SGOs are designed to provide permanency for the child while preserving the link with the birth parents. They cement the relationship between the carer and the child to a greater degree than a Child Arrangements Order (CAO), or what used to be known as a Residence Order. The parental responsibility (‘PR’) that a Special Guardian has, is enhanced over the parents’ PR, meaning they can override the parents’ wishes in many cases. SGOs were designed as a hybrid between adoption, which severs the links the birth family has, and Residence/Child Arrangements Orders, where the PR is shared.

When a grandparent or family member wishes to make an application they must give notice to the local authority. This will trigger an assessment and the preparation of a report to provide a recommendation as to whether an SGO should be made. In freestanding applications for SGO, the local authority needs to be given at least three months’ notice before an application is made.

It is possible to apply to the local authority for a Special Guardianship Allowance, although this will be means tested and is discretionary. If the local authority supports the SGO application, the matter will be considered by the courts and if the order is granted it will usually be until the child is 18.

It is certainly not a decision to be taken lightly but if the alternative is placing the child outside the family and perhaps losing contact, it seems to be an option that many grandparents are willing to take.

If the child is placed with the grandparent or family member by the local authority, the child is recognised as a “looked after child” and the carers will be entitled to extra support. The child is also entitled to pupil premium payments to their school, which ensures that the school receives extra funds to support the child .

Very often the child will already be subject to Child Protection Planning or Care Proceedings, and a SGO application can be made within those proceedings.

If you are caring for a child who is not your own, or are placed in this situation, it is important to take legal advice from a solicitor. If the child has been placed with you by the local authority, check with the social worker if they are able to assist in funding any legal advice with a Children Panel solicitor. Oxfordshire County Council will usually fund an initial advice.