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A qualitative exploration of the views and experiences of family court magistrates making decisions in care proceedings involving parents with learning disabilities



Accessible summary

  • Some research shows that parents with learning disabilities often have their children removed from their care. When someone is worried about a person with learning disabilities caring for a child, magistrates in family courts sometimes decide who will look after the child.
  • Researchers interviewed four family court magistrates. They were interested in what it has been like for the magistrates making decisions in court when the parent had a learning disability.
  • This article talks about three parts of their stories:
    • ○their knowledge about learning disabilities and what they think others know,
    • ○important things when deciding whether a parent can look after their child, and
    • ○whether knowing a person with a learning disability changes what they do as a magistrate.
  • The findings could be used to help people with learning disabilities think about what things might be important if someone is worried about them looking after their children.


A small evidence base suggests that parents with learning disabilities are likely to have their children permanently removed from their care. There is no known research involving magistrates in England, despite their role in care proceedings. This study aimed to explore the experience of magistrates making decisions in care proceedings involving parents with learning disabilities. Four family court magistrates took part in a semi-structured interview. The findings suggest that the magistrates in this sample perceive a distinction between themselves and others in terms of their ability to accommodate complexity in conceptualising learning disabilities. The ability to appreciate such complexity was considered important by magistrates in them adopting a more proactive role when presented with expert opinion. Four main influences were spoken of when determining the best interests of the child: timescale and age of the child, expert opinion, parenting abilities and support. Participants indicated how their experiences with people with learning disabilities outside of the court system have impacted on their role within care proceedings and have shaped their awareness of the limits of their own knowledge. Magistrates indicated a general need for more training about learning disabilities. Limitations and implications for practice are discussed.