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Legal Definitions

What does 'looked after' mean?

‘Looked After’ - a provision made under the Children’s Act 1989 in England and Wales, the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 and the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 whereby a local authority / Health and Social Care Trust has obligations to provide for, or share, the care of a child or young person under 16 years of age where parent(s) or guardian(s) for whatever reason are prevented from providing them with a suitable accommodation or care. A child is ‘looked after’ if he or she is provided with accommodation, or in Scotland is subject to a supervision order made by a children’s hearing (even if they are staying in the family home), or if they are subject to certain provision imposed by the system.

Who is a 'care leaver' according to the legal definition?

Care Leaver - a person who has been looked after for at least 13 weeks since the age of 14, and who was in care on their 16th birthday.

A young person's status as a care leaver can be divided into the following:

Eligible Child* - a young person who is 16 or 17 and who has been looked after by the local authority/Health and Social Care Trust for at least a period of 13 weeks since the age of 14, and who is still looked after.

Relevant Child* - a young person who is 16 or 17 who has left care after their 16th birthday and before leaving care was an eligible child.

Former Relevant Child* - a young person who is aged between 18 and 21 (or beyond if being helped with education or training) who, before turning 18 was either an eligible or a relevant child, or both.

Many institutions with the Quality Mark will use wider definitions of who they consider to be a care leaver for financial support, for example, some will provide support for anyone who is 'care experienced'. 

For 16 and 17 year olds, the local authority / Health and Social Care Trust is responsible for the cost of accommodation, food, utility bills, other living expenses and travel costs for education and training. Care leavers aged between 18 and 22 can claim benefits (e.g. housing benefit) but local authorities have obligations to provide advice and guidance for care leavers up to age 19-21, depending on the nation in which they live, and may provide financial support for a care leaver until the end of a course. Students in Scotland may be able to claim a care leaver’s grant from the Student Awards Agency to help with accommodation costs during the summer holiday. Care Leavers in Northern Ireland who resided in foster care prior to becoming a care leaver at age 18 can continue to reside with their carers post 18 under the GEM (Going the Extra Mile) Scheme1. Those children returning home after being in care are not typically referred to as care-leavers. 

View the Department for Education's leaflet on entitlements for Care Leavers in England.


Allocated Social Worker - the social worker allocated to an individual’s case, and who leads on the care planning for that child.

Carer(s) - the person(s) directly responsible for looking after the child. If the child is in residential care this will be carried out by residential care workers, if in foster care the responsibility will be borne by the foster carer(s). In Scotland a local authority may make arrangements for a child on supervision to be cared for by a parent or other person with parental responsibilities (usually termed ‘looked after at home’).

Care Order - made by the Courts in England, Wales and NI where there has been evidence accepted that a child has suffered or is likely to suffer ‘significant harm’ attributable to the care given or likely to be given to them. A Care Order results in the local authority / Health and Social Care Trust sharing parental responsibility for a child. The Care Order continues unless the child is adopted or becomes the subject of a residence order, or if the Care Order is revoked by the Court following evidence that the child’s circumstances have changed; or lapses at age 18 years, i.e. legal adulthood.

Compulsory Supervision Order - the legal term used in Scotland whereby a children’s hearing or sheriff (judge presiding in the sheriff court) specifies a local authority to carry out duties toward the child prescribed in the order.

Director of Children’s Services - the senior person in the local authority / Health and Social Care Trust who is accountable for that authority’s services for children including education, social services for children and some health functions.

Looked After Child (LAC) Education Services - a team within a local authority with responsibility for improving the educational progress and attainment of children looked after by that authority2.

Looked After Child (LAC) Review - a statutory review meeting which convenes regularly (usually once every three or six months once initial reviews have been undertaken) to review and discuss the child’s care, health and education plans. The Review is chaired by an Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) and the meeting should include social care, education and health professionals, along with the foster carers and any other professionals working with the child. Independent Reviewing Officers are not consistent across all Health and Social Care Trust areas in Northern Ireland; however there would be named senior managers with responsibility for chairing Looked After Children Reviews.

Pathway Plan - a document drawn up by the responsible local authority / Health and Social Care Trust along with the young person which sets out: the manner in which the local authority / Trust proposes to meet the needs of the young person, when the local authority / Trust might cease to look after the young person, and the date by which and by whom the plan will be implemented.

Personal Education Plan (PEP) in England, Wales and NI / Personal Learning Plan (PLP) in Scotland - a continuous running record of the child/young person’s school history and identifies what needs to happen for looked after children/young people to fulfil their potential by planning and establishing clear targets for the child/young person relating to learning achievements. A PEP should be completed for all looked after children/young people admitted to care at the three month LAC Review, six month LAC Review, and at six monthly intervals thereafter to coincide with LAC Reviews. In Northern Ireland, Personal Education Plans are not statutory documents but have been introduced jointly by DHSSPS and DE from 1 December 2011.

Personal Adviser - a person who is appointed by the responsible local authority / Health and Social Care Trust responsible for overseeing the pathway plan and ensuring that the young person receives the support to which he or she is entitled in a co- ordinated and easily accessible way. They will be the main point of contact between a young person and his or her responsible local authority / Health and Social Care Trust.

Residence Order - means an order settling the arrangements to be made as to the person with whom a child is to live.

Responsible Local Authority - the local authority whose duty it is to care for the Looked After Child. This may, or may not, be the local authority in whose area the child is currently living.

Supported Lodgings (England, Wales and Scotland only) - transitional accommodation providing placements for young people, who are usually, but not always, care leavers, to enable them to improve and develop their independence skills in an environment that will usually be a family home provided by a specialist accommodator or by a young person’s former foster carer, where some support will be available.

Jointly Commissioned Supported Accommodation for Young Adults - dedicated supported housing for young people aged 16-21 in Northern Ireland which provides transitional supported living specifically for young care leavers and other vulnerable young people who are making the transition to adulthood.

1 Go the Extra Mile (GEM) is a DHSSPS initiative, unique to Northern Ireland, which seeks to promote continuity of living arrangements in post care life for young people aged 18 to 21. For young people who currently reside with foster carers/ kinship carers, the scheme ensures that appropriate and agreed levels of financial support are available to assist carers to continue to meet the care, accommodation and support needs of these young people.

2 Such a team is not consistent across all Health and Social Care Trust areas in Northern Ireland.

* These terms do not apply in Scotland.

Some terms have been taken from existing glossaries and documents and some have been put together by the Virtual School Kent.

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