This is the decision of Bellamy J, sitting as a Deputy High Court Judge.
Re H (A child) 2014
In this case, the LA accepted that their actions had breached the parents article 8 and article 6 rights, and the only issue was whether there should be a financial penalty, and the scale of it.
I’ve rather given the whole plot away (in the style of a cinema trailer that shows you everything that happens in the film) in the title – the parents were awarded £6,000 each.
What was the nature of the breach? Well, in effect it was that the LA had obtained written consents from the parents for their child to be in voluntary care, but had not followed the principles of fairness in ensuring that the parents actually understood what they were signing up to and their right to say no. (You will recall that the High Court gave a powerful precedent on this issue in Re C – particularly where a parent might be lacking capacity)
In this case, to be fair, the social worker picked up straight away that these parents might have some cognitive or learning difficulties.
- The local authority conducted an investigation pursuant to s.47 of the Children Act 1989. The assessment was completed on 29th May. The local authority considered that the parents had concealed the pregnancy. The local authority concluded that H was at risk of significant harm from her parents due to the concealed pregnancy, the parents’ learning needs and their limited support networks and that it would therefore be unsafe to discharge H into her parents’ care at that time.
- During the course of the assessment the local authority social worker noted that the parents’ learning difficulties were evident during discussions and that the parents appeared to have difficulty in understanding and processing information. She discussed her concerns with her manager. She did not take any steps to explore this issue further
Thus missing the boat. That would have been the time to get a cognitive assessment done, to establish what the parents issues were and find out the best way to work with them. It didn’t happen, and arrangements were made for the child without any real consideration of whether the parents properly understood what they were agreeing to.
There is no record of the parents having been provided with an explanation of all of the available options or of the consequences if they did not consent to H being cared for by Mr and Mrs B or of there having been any discussion about how long this ‘informal’ placement might last. They were advised to seek legal advice if they were unhappy with this plan and were provided with a complaints leaflet. The parents did not seek legal advice.
The case moved to another social worker, who again picked up on the learning difficulty issue immediately.
The case was transferred to the local authority’s long-term childcare team in August 2013. The social worker later raised concerns with her manager about the lack of progress in completing an assessment of the parents. She suspected that this may be linked to what she believed to be the parents’ learning disability. The social worker was also concerned that the parents appeared not to have fully understood what they were agreeing to when H was placed with Mr and Mrs B. The parents were anxious to know when H would be returned to their care
Did that resolve it? Well, not quite.
- In October 2013 the Team manager sought advice from senior management. This led to a legal planning meeting being convened. The meeting took place on 12th November 2013. The meeting recognised that the placement of H with Mr and Mrs B was not a private fostering arrangement and yet was clearly a ‘placement’ as it was initiated by the local authority. The meeting decided,
(1) that the parents should be asked to give their retrospective consent to the placement of H in the voluntary care of the local authority pursuant to s.20 of the Children Act 1989 with effect from the date she had been with Mr and Mrs B (7th June 2013);
(2) that there should be an urgent cognitive functioning assessment of both parents in order to inform the local authority assessment and how best to work with the parents.
(3) that if the parents refused to consent to H being accommodated under s.20 and placed with Mr and Mrs B and/or to co-operate with arrangements for a cognitive functioning assessment, then the local authority would commence care proceedings.
- It was also agreed that the social worker would meet with the parents to discuss the decisions made by the legal planning meeting. It was accepted that H, her parents and Mr and Mrs B had been subjected to unacceptable delay and uncertainty and that the need for conversation with the parents was now urgent.
Absolutely right that there should be a cognitive assessment. But to try to get the parents to sign a s20 agreement when there was a doubt as to their capacity can’t be right. This is of course after the Re CA decision, so obviously some people haven’t read it. Let me set out those principles again
i) Every parent has the right, if capacitous, to exercise their parental responsibility to consent under Section 20 to have their child accommodated by the local authority and every local authority has power under Section 20(4) so to accommodate provided that it is consistent with the welfare of the child.
ii) Every social worker obtaining such a consent is under a personal duty (the outcome of which may not be dictated to them by others) to be satisfied that the person giving the consent does not lack the capacity to do so.
iii) In taking any such consent the social worker must actively address the issue of capacity and take into account all the circumstances prevailing at the time and consider the questions raised by Section 3 of the 2005 Act, and in particular the mother’s capacity at that time to use and weigh all the relevant information.
iv) If the social worker has doubts about capacity no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion and advice should be sought from the social work team leader or management.
v) If the social worker is satisfied that the person whose consent is sought does not lack capacity, the social worker must be satisfied that the consent is fully informed:
a) Does the parent fully understand the consequences of giving such a consent?
b) Does the parent fully appreciate the range of choice available and the consequences of refusal as well as giving consent?
c) Is the parent in possession of all the facts and issues material to the giving of consent?
vi) If not satisfied that the answers to a) – c) above are all ‘yes’, no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion and advice should be sought as above and the social work team should further consider taking legal advice if thought necessary.
vii) If the social worker is satisfied that the consent is fully informed then it is necessary to be further satisfied that the giving of such consent and the subsequent removal is both fair and proportionate.
viii) In considering that it may be necessary to ask:
a) what is the current physical and psychological state of the parent?
b) If they have a solicitor, have they been encouraged to seek legal advice and/or advice from family or friends?
c) Is it necessary for the safety of the child for her to be removed at this time?
d) Would it be fairer in this case for this matter to be the subject of a court order rather than an agreement?
ix) If having done all this and, if necessary, having taken further advice (as above and including where necessary legal advice), the social worker then considers that a fully informed consent has been received from a capacitous mother in circumstances where removal is necessary and proportionate, consent may be acted upon.
x) In the light of the foregoing, local authorities may want to approach with great care the obtaining of Section 20 agreements from mothers in the aftermath of birth, especially where there is no immediate danger to the child and where probably no order would be made.
IF YOU DOUBT that a parent has capacity, you really shouldn’t be getting them to sign ANYTHING, particularly not a section 20 agreement.
Back to the case – the cognitive assessment didn’t arrive until 1st April 2014 – yes, eleven months after the issue was first spotted, and six months after it was spotted the second time around and a Legal Planning Meeting recommended it.
Perhaps my experience is unusual, but having worked at seven local authorities, I’ve never had a difficulty in obtaining a cognitive assessment – they aren’t reports that take a long time to produce – you can normally get them within 2-3 weeks of asking the doctor to provide them.
Oh wait, I’m wrong. That was the date of the APPOINTMENT. The report itself didn’t turn up for another 8 weeks, at the end of May. So yes, a year had passed between thinking the parents had learning difficulties and getting a cognitive.
To paraphrase Edmund Blackadder, we may have been at home for Mr and Mrs Cock-up here.
Here’s what the cognitive assessment said
- It is appropriate to set out Dr James’ conclusions at this stage in the narrative though she did not, in fact, report until 27th May 2014.
- With respect to the mother, Dr James says that all of her scores fell within the borderline range, indicating consistently limited functioning across all areas. With respect to the father, Dr James says that:
‘While [the mother's] scores give a consistent picture of Borderline abilities, the distribution of [the father's] scores, ranging as they do from Learning Disability, through Borderline to Average, is unusual, and presents a complex picture. As a result of this intellectual profile, [the father's] ability to understand, process and use verbally mediated information and concepts is significantly below what might be expected, given his ability in other areas. This is likely to present a very real limitation for him in everyday life. The most likely explanation for this very specific impairment is that it is related to his epilepsy.’
- Dr James gave advice on how the parents should be approached. With respect to the mother, Dr James said that:
‘As far as information and advice presented verbally are concerned, [the mother] has a reasonable ability to understand this, and I would expect her to be able to cope well with the kind of discussion likely to take place during a parenting assessment. She will seem at times to be a little slow to respond to what is said, but if you wait for an answer she will give it in a way which shows that she has understood the question.’
With respect to the father, Dr James advised that:
‘Allowance will need to be made for [the father's] specific difficulties with verbal comprehension…Of particular importance in the course of the assessment will be not expecting him to portray verbally what he is capable of, since he can evidence this more effectively through practical means. In other words, his behaviour rather than his descriptions will be the best guide to what he can achieve.’
- In a subsequent letter, Dr James gave the following further guidance so far as the father is concerned. She said that,
‘The following guidance is intended to help his Solicitor to support him to have full capacity in the Proceedings. At the beginning of an appointment, [the father] can present with rushed speech, and a jumbled account of recent events. He needs a little time to settle down, after which he will become more coherent, and can be systematically led through the information he wants to convey. He responds well to direct questioning. Advice given to him should be expressed carefully to avoid ambiguity. Ideally, each sentence should contain one idea only, with a pause at the end of the sentence for this to be absorbed, before offering the next piece of advice or information. It can also be helpful to specifically remind him to listen carefully to important points.’
But you know, maybe these parents were unknown quantities and that explained some of the problem. Nope.
- Given that the father was in the care of this local authority during his own childhood, much of this information about his presentation and functioning should have been contained in the local authority’s earlier case file and should, therefore, have been available to the local authority when it became involved with the father again following the birth of H.
- The local authority finally issued these care proceedings on 29th April, 2014. H was born on 16th May, 2013. She was, therefore, fast approaching her first birthday when these proceedings were issued. It took this local authority almost a year to issue these proceedings. That delay was unjustified and inexcusable.
Where the Local Authority did recover some mild credit was in ‘fessing up once these mistakes came to light, rather than trying to defend the indefensible.
- Sonia Grant, Service Manager in the local authority’s Children In Need Service, filed a written statement. Most of the narrative set out above is based on Ms Grant’s evidence. Ms Grant concedes that in this case the performance of this local authority has fallen below acceptable standards. She says,
’4.1 The local authority’s review of the events surrounding both situations has identified serious practice issues relating to the identification of [the mother's] capacity to give consent, particularly in respect of the placement with Mr and Mrs B in June 2013.
4.2 The parents’ capacity to consent was not fully considered or explored at all the key stages of the assessment and decision-making process…
4.5 The placement with Mr and Mrs B was clearly a ‘Section 20 placement’ made by the local authority, who would have had to place H in foster care and possibly initiate care proceedings if Mr and Mrs B could not care for her. The Legal Planning Meeting held on 12th November attempted to bring the matter back on track to avoid further delay, but there was a significant delay in arranging the cognitive functioning assessment which only added to the delays within the case.
4.6 The local authority accepts that the social work judgments and decision-making within this case fell below what was required at key points, and failed to fully take account of the combined complexities of the parents and H’s competing needs in a timely and child-centred way.
4.7 The issues about parental capacity to give consent that occurred within this case have highlighted the urgent need to ensure social workers are aware of their responsibilities in this area. Therefore, the local authority intends to urgently address this training issue to avoid this happening again.’
- It is against that background that the local authority accepts that it has breached the parents’ rights under Article 6 and Article 8 and that it is appropriate for the court to make declarations. With respect to the declarations sought by the mother, the local authority concedes that it has acted in breach of the mother’s Article 6 and Article 8 rights in that it:
1. failed to issue proceedings in a timely manner;
2. failed to involve the parents in the decision making process;
3. failed to take steps to explore concerns regarding the mother’s lack of understanding [though making the point that at the meeting on 18th November 2013 the social worker was satisfied that the parents were able to provide informed consent to s.20 accommodation at that stage];
4. should not have sought the parents’ consent on 31st May 2013 or taken their proposals of alternative carers as consent to the placement with Mr and Mrs B;
5. placed insufficient weight on the parents’ clearly expressed wish to care for H themselves;
6. failed to explain all available options, timescales and the consequences if they did not consent to H being cared for by Mr and Mrs B;
7. should not have asked the mother to sign an agreement on 3rd June 2013 consenting to placement away from the parents;
8. permitted H to be cared for away from her parents against their expressly stated wishes;
9. failed to acknowledge that they had placed H with Mr and Mrs B or to undertake a written viability assessment of Mr and Mrs B [though noting that it did undertake routine checks, interviews and a review of the accommodation in the process of making a decision that it was a safe arrangement for H]; and
10. significantly delayed in assessing the parents’ capacity to parent H.
- With respect to the declarations sought by the father, the local authority concedes that it acted in breach of the father’s Article 6 and Article 8 rights in that it:
1. failed to provide him with appropriate information as to the consequences of not consenting to s.20 accommodation;
2. failed to consider or explore his capacity to consent to s.20 accommodation before removing H from his care;
3. permitted unacceptable delay and uncertainty in the assessment process; and
4. by its flawed procedures, deprived the father of living with H for the first year of her life [though being of the view that both parents have complex histories and difficulties and that H's removal pending assessment of the parents was necessary to ensure her safety].
Having established those breaches, the Court then turned to the issue of damages. It is too law geek for the general public, but the judgment does set out an helpful analysis of the law and judicial approach towards making punitive awards in family law cases. It would be a decent starting point for skeletons for and against the principle.
- In the case with which I am now concerned H is these parents’ first child. Whilst it may be the case that had the local authority issued care proceedings soon after H was born an interim care order would have been made, the fact is that proceedings were not commenced promptly. They were not issued until shortly before H’s first birthday. It was not until June 2014 that these parents eventually managed to secure the return of their daughter to their care, exactly a year after she was placed with Mr and Mrs B. Whilst it is true that during that year the parents were having regular contact, supervised contact at a local authority contact centre is far removed from the joys of fulltime, unsupervised care of one’s own child. The residential assessment which began in June 2014 could have begun a year earlier. The cognitive assessment of the parents, not finally obtained until May 2014, could have been obtained months earlier. Unlike the parents in the Coventry case, these parents’ have suffered a loss of time with their daughter which was both unnecessarily lengthy and deeply distressing.
- I am in no doubt that, bearing in mind the guidance given in the authorities to which I have referred, this is a case in which merely to make the declarations set out earlier in this judgment would not provide just satisfaction for all that these parents have had to live through as a result of the conduct of this local authority. I am satisfied that an award of damages is ‘necessary to afford just satisfaction’ to these parents.
- The final issue is to determine the appropriate quantum of damages. There is little guidance in the authorities on the approach to be taken when quantifying an award of damages under s.8(2). If one looks at the authorities for appropriate comparators, again there is relatively little assistance.
It is worth noting the underlined passages – these parents were successfully reunited with their child, and had lost the first year of that child’s life due to these mistakes.
The Court looked at such historical precedents as there were for human rights act breaches and financial recompense and agreed with the parents that their claim for £6,000 each was fair. (I think that’s probably a bit light, having read the case, but can you really be compensated for something as priceless as time with your child?)
To finish up, there was a film which had a very memorable strap-line, used in the trailers and on the posters. It was so memorable that everyone knows it, though hardly any of you will be able to tell me which film it was from. Let me know if you know it, or think you do. Googling or such is cheating – you either know it, or you don’t. I know that you can type.
The strapline, apposite here was
BE VERY AFRAID