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Tag Archives: section 20

“Hope your child enjoyed their stay, now if you could just settle your bill, please”

 

Or, on an Alan Partridge vibe “Cashback!”  (Have been hitting the Partridge in readiness for the film, apologies)

The legal implications of the mooted proposals from Worcestershire to charge parents for voluntary foster care.

 

Worcestershire are of course, only consulting on the scheme at the moment, and haven’t made any decisions; but the idea in a nutshell is that where a parent can’t look after a child and the child goes into voluntary foster care, the parent would be charged by Worcestershire to recover the costs of this (subject to the parents means)

 

http://www.communitycare.co.uk/articles/14/08/2013/119417/council-defends-controversial-plans-to-charge-parents-whose-children-go-into-care.htm

 

 

and here

 

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/aug/13/children-charged-social-care-worchestershire?INTCMP=SRCH

 

 

There are, as we know, two distinct categories of services that a Local Authority provides for children in need

 

  1. Section 17 services to meet their needs
  2. Section 20 accommodation of children who have to live away from their families for whatever reason.

 

Most lawyers are dimly aware that the Children Act has in it tucked away the POWER to make charges for section 20 placements, but the Act actually goes further than that.

 

Surprisingly, despite all the vitriol that Worcestershire’s mooted policy has caused them, they are actually just complying with the Children Act 1989

 

 

     Schedule 2 para   21. —(1) Where a local authority are looking after a child(other than in the cases mentioned in sub-paragraph(7)) they shall consider whether they should recover contributions towards the child’s maintenance from any person liable to contribute(“a contributor”)

See that word ‘shall’ there? That means it is a mandatory duty. The Local Authority are legally obliged to consider whether to recover financial contributions from a parent where the child is in voluntary foster care.  (para 21 (7) prohibits doing so where the child is in compulsory foster care i.e an interim care order, for obvious reasons). They HAVE to consider whether they should try to recover the costs from the parent.

 

What Worcestershire’s maligned policy goes on to say is that such charges wouldn’t be imposed on any parent in receipt of benefits  (which the Act already says in Schedule 2 para 21(4) ) and that they would only ever recover those financial contributions where it is reasonable to do so (which the Act already says in Schedule 2 para 21 (2))

 

So Worcestershire could simply have told everyone that their intention was to comply with their duties under the Children Act 1989.  Job done.

 

Of course, although those duties exist, they are one that most authorities overlook, just as (cough cough) many of the OTHER duties in Schedule 2 get overlooked from time to time.

 

This is really more of a corporate decision that where a parent is working and has financial means, that the Local Authority would genuinely look at the issue of charging them for accommodating their children  i.e they would ACTUALLY give it consideration under Schedule 2 para 21;  whereas most Local Authorities, if they have thought about para 21 at all, it is that they would not ever try to recover such contributions.

 

One can see why, as soon as one looks at para 22’s provisions as to how such charges would actually come about

 

 

      22. —(1) Contributions towards a child’s maintenance may only be recovered if the local authority have served a notice(“a contribution notice”) on the contributor specifying—

 (a)  the weekly sum which they consider that he should contribute; and

 (b)  arrangements for payment.

(2)  The contribution notice must be in writing and dated.

(3)  Arrangements for payment shall, in particular, include—

 (a)  the date on which liability to contribute begins(which must not be earlier than the date of the notice);

 (b)  the date on which liability under the notice will end(if the child has not before that date ceased to be looked after by the authority); and

 (c)  the date on which the first payment is to be made.

 

 

Para 22 also caps the contributions to be no more than the actual cost of foster care.  That of course, prevents the Local Authority blessed with affluent parents with stroppy teenagers from propping up their budgets by charging Mr and Mrs Moneybags £10,000 a week to look after young Tony Moneybags.

 

 

Okay, well having :-

 

(a)  Found a parent who has some means and isn’t on benefits, whose child is voluntarily accommodated

(b)  Decided whether it is reasonable to ask them for a contribution

(c)  Set that amount at what it is reasonable for them to pay – that being no more than the foster care allowance

(d)  Drawn up a Contribution Notice

 

 

What happens when the parent doesn’t pay the money?

 

Well, para 23 kicks in

 

23. —(1) Where a contributor has been served with a contribution notice and has—

 (a)  failed to reach any agreement with the local authority as mentioned in paragraph 22(7) within the period of one month beginning with the day on which the contribution notice was served; or

 (b)  served a notice under paragraph 22(8) withdrawing his agreement,

the authority may apply to the court for an order under this paragraph.

(2)  On such an application the court may make an order(“a contribution order”) requiring the contributor to contribute a weekly sum towards the child’s maintenance in accordance with arrangements for payment specified by the court.

(3)  A contribution order—

 (a)  shall not specify a weekly sum greater than that specified in the contribution notice; and

 (b)  shall be made with due regard to the contributor’s means.

(4)  A contribution order shall not—

 (a)  take effect before the date specified in the contribution notice; or

 (b)  have effect while the contributor is not liable to contribute(by virtue of paragraph 21); or

(c)     remain in force after the child has ceased to be looked after by the authority who obtained the order.

 

 

See that last little paragraph that I’ve underlined? That means that the order that the Court can make (but won’t) doesn’t have any effect once the child stops being looked after.

 

So what, you say?

 

Well, once you realise that the Local Authority HAVE to stop accommodating a child voluntarily once the parent objects (s20(7) , but that they HAVE to provide accommodation for any child who meets the criteria in s20(1), which includes “the person who has been caring for him being prevented (whether or not permanently or for whatever reason) from providing him with suitable accommodation”

 

(Lightbulb)

 

It is pretty clear that the wealthy parent, served with a contribution notice, who ignores it, and is then taken to court, can simply declare as soon as the Contribution Order is made that they object to the child being accommodated.

 

That ends the accommodation and the Contribution Order.  The parent can then notify the LA that the child needs to be voluntarily accommodated all over again.

 

And note that the Contribution Order doesn’t compel any payments HIGHER than the original weekly amount in the contribution notice, so it doesn’t provide for recovery of the previous weeks missed. (that’s the net effect of reg 23(3) (a) )

 

In those circumstances, the Contribution Order will net the Local Authority not one shiny penny, and will lose them all the legal fees and costs in the meantime. 

 

 

So, just running things through in my own mind :-

 

  • A policy of charging middle to high income parents for voluntarily accommodating children would be politically unpopular

 

  • It would garner very negative publicity (as we have seen, just saying that you are considering it makes things get ugly)

 

  • Probably only covers a small proportion of the children who are voluntarily looked after in any event 
  • Has the possibility of discouraging parents who are not coping temporarily and need a break from seeking that help

 

  • It almost certainly inhibits the working relationship between the Local Authority and the parent aimed at fixing the problems so that the child could go home.

 

  • It would be administratively expensive – someone has to do financial assessments (and how do you get a parent to tell you their income anyway? What’s in it for the wealthy parent to tell you?), someone has to draw up Contribution Notices, someone has to collect the money and keep track of it

 

  • Any attempt to enforce it would be incredibly vulnerable to a side-step using the interplay of s20(7) and para 24 (4) (c), as outlined above

 

  • It would be unlikely to actually recoup any income

 

 

 So, ending with Alan Partridge again, I’m not sure that this policy is “back of the net” material

 

Of course, all Worcestershire have done so far is remind themselves that they have a statutory duty to CONSIDER this and all that they have done is complied with their duties under the Children Act 1989.

“Social Services are asking me to put my child in care, and they want me to do it now”

 Some important things for you to know, if you are asked to put your child in care. And some practical tips.

 

Firstly, and I can’t stress this enough – I am not your lawyer, just A LAWYER, and what is right for you and the circumstances of your case are things I don’t know, and the best thing I can recommend is for you to either talk to your own lawyer or find a lawyer and talk to them.

If you need to find one – you came here on the net, so you have internet. Google “family law firms in X” (where X is your town or county). Look for ones who do Care work if you can. Get in touch with them and make an urgent appointment.

There might be a good reason for you, and your family, why agreeing to the children coming into care is a good thing. What I want to help you with is not agreeing just because you feel you have no choice, and before you have had chance to think and ask your own lawyer what to do. If you honestly feel that it is the right thing for you, don’t be put off by me. I am trying to help people who feel that it ISN’T the right thing for them.

That done, back to your situation. You are a parent, social workers have come to your house, told you that they are worried about your children and think they need to come into care and are asking you to agree.

Here are some important things to know before you make any decisions

1. You don’t have to say yes. It has to be your free choice.

2. You don’t have to decide right now.

3. You are entitled to tell them that you want some legal advice before you decide something as big as that.

4. If you are told “If you don’t agree we will go to Court”, this is supposed to make you agree to avoid going to Court. It doesn’t have to. The Court will listen to your side of the story, and it might be that going to Court is the right thing for you to do. At the very least, it will get you a lawyer who will listen to you, give you advice and speak on your behalf.

5. The social worker doesn’t have any magic powers to be able to take your children away. They have to have either your agreement, or a Court order. Except in very specific circumstances, they can’t get a Court order without you having a chance to be there, to have your own lawyer speak on your behalf and have the chance to have your say.  They should NEVER go away and try to get that order without you being there if they have asked you to consent to the children coming into care and you have said no. That hearing should be with you present.

6. If they DO have that Court order, you will have a chance at a later Court hearing to challenge and fight it, but I’m afraid the order does give them the power to remove (if it is an Emergency Protection Order or an Interim Care Order) and trying to prevent them won’t do much good. You can try to tell them the names of other family members who would be willing and able to look after the children (as they have to consider placing the children within the family rather than with strangers if it is safe to do so)

7. The police do have the power to take your children away without a Court order (I’ll come back to that later) so you will know that if the police aren’t there and there isn’t a court order, your children will not be going anywhere unless you agree or until you have your say in Court.

Here are suggestions for what you can do if you are asked to make that decision

Very hard to do, but keep calm. It is likely that what you do and say in the next hour or so will end up being information given to the Court. It can be information that helps you (you were calm, reasonable but firm) or that hurts you (you got aggressive, shouting, or physical, or the children were exposed to lots of drama and distress whilst all this was going on).

With that in mind, it is perfectly fine to say something like “That’s a real shock. I want to talk about this, but I don’t want the children to have to hear it. Can we sit down with the children being in another room and talk about it for a bit?”

And “I’d really like to get some legal advice about all this before I decide anything at all, does this have to be decided right now?”

If they are insisting on it being right now, it is fine for you to ask why, and also fine for you to ask them for some paper, so you can make a note of what they are saying.

It is also fine to say “I would like to call my lawyer to see what they think and I am going to do that now, just so I know where I stand”

[I don’t know whether agreeing to the children coming into care is right for you, or right for your situation, that’s a matter for you and your lawyer. What I want to do is give you the chance to make that decision and think about it and know what it means.]

The social worker will probably say something along the lines of “I’m afraid if you won’t agree now to the children going into care, then I’ll go to court and get an order for them to come into care”

And as I said earlier, you need to remember, that what they actually mean here is “I’ll go to court and ASK for an order for the children to come into care, and you will be at Court and you can ASK for them to stay at home, and the Court will make a decision”

And also that the Court don’t automatically grant those orders – they require the social worker to have evidence that the children are at risk and that going into care is the only thing that can be done, and that everything else that could be tried either has been or isn’t safe to try.

It might be that for you, going to Court is better than agreeing for the children to go into care. You would have your chance to fight this in Court, to have someone speak for you, and the chances are that if Social Services are in your home asking you to agree to the children going into care that you will eventually have to be in Court in order to get them back. So the threat of the case going to Court isn’t a good reason to agree to the children going into care, if you wouldn’t otherwise agree to do it.

Agree if you do think it is best for you or your children, or if talking it through with your lawyer you decide it is right for you right now, and that you need to sort some things out for yourself first before you have that fight.

If you feel that you are being bullied to agree or make that decision right away, you can say to the social worker “I believe that the High Court in Re CA, decided that section 20 consent has to be voluntary and not as a result of pressure, and that my human rights could be breached if I was cajoled into that agreement”

And “It isn’t that I am not cooperating, but I think a decision about whether my children should be removed is a very big one, and I don’t agree that right now. I’d want to see all of the evidence and have my own legal advice before I thought about it”

What if the police are there?

If the police are there, all of these discussions become much more serious. The police do have the power to take the children away, under Police Protection. That lasts for 72 hours, after which time the social workers have to either get a Court order, or your agreement to the children being in care, or a Court order.

So you would have a right to challenge and fight to get the children back in 72 hours, but you obviously want to avoid that happening if at all possible.

So firstly, again keep calm. Shouting, yelling, screaming, throwing things, being aggressive are all things that make the police more likely to use that power. Try not to give them any excuse.

Here are the magic words, if the police say “we are going to take your child into police protection” or something similar.

“Officer, I’m not being difficult, but I see that you have come with the social worker, which means social services are already involved. And as the High Court said in Re CA 2012, where that is the case, the social worker ought to go to Court to seek an order from the Court, so my human rights aren’t breached by the police or social services. And you will know from the Liverpool case that the police shouldn’t just take a child into police protection to save the social worker the trouble of going to court. And so you should only take the children into police protection if the risks are so great that they can’t be kept safe until the case is heard in Court. I won’t do anything silly and I won’t run away. I will go to Court and the Court will decide. If you want, you can watch me with the kids, or they can go to (my mother/aunt Beryl/whoever) until the Court case starts, then you know everything will be fine.”

That may well put the fear of god into them. It will probably make them think “God, I don’t know anything about the law on this, but this person seems to, and the High Court say we shouldn’t do this”

And you won’t have said anything that isn’t (a) true and (b) fair. No threats, no shouting. Just a reminder that the police aren’t supposed to do social workers dirty work for them, unless there is evidence that the children won’t be safe with you even for an hour whilst the social worker gets a Court hearing sorted out.

“I need two volunteers – you, and you” – how ‘voluntary’ is voluntary accommodation?

A consideration of the High Court decision in CA (A Baby), Re [2012] EWHC 2190 (Fam) (30 July 2012)  and whether it is now legitimate for a social worker to ask a mother to agree voluntary accommodation of a baby.  (answer, probably not)

 

I think it would not be unreasonable to describe this case as being to section 20 what Re X was to EPOs.

 

The case can be found here :-

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2012/2190.html

 

Much of the case relates to a factual determination of applications for Care and Placement Orders, but the important bit of wider import can be found in the passages dealing with the mother’s case that her human rights had been breached by the Local Authority effectively pressuring her into agreeing section 20 voluntary accommodation of her child.

 

As far as I am aware, this is the first case dealing with the vexed issue of whether someone has genuinely agreed section 20 accommodation, and whether when the LA effectively pitch up and say “You’ve got to agree to accommodate” there is actually any element of choice involved.

23. Substantial discussions took place on the first day of the hearing (and had of course been in train for some time) which resulted in the local authority conceding the mother’s claim under Section 7 of the 1998 Act. The substance is recorded in the recitals to the order but in effect acknowledge two matters: first, that a Section 20 consent should not have been sought on 1st February 2012; and secondly, that such a removal was not a proportionate response to the risks that then existed. In the event the local authority accepts breaches of the Article 8 rights of both mother and child. The Order with its recitals is annexed to and should be read in conjunction with this judgment

24. The mother, in discussion about damages, asked that they be applied to the costs of her receiving the therapeutic input that has long been advised. The parties have agreed the payment of damages and other provisions which all accept amount to ‘just satisfaction’ of both these claims. It is important to stress that nothing in the subsequent discussion of Section 20 agreements or indeed anything else in this judgment is intended to impugn (nor should it be so read) the propriety of that resolution of the Human Rights claim to which indeed the court (since a minor is a party) specifically gives its approval.

 

So, that’s already quite a big deal – the Court (and the parties) accepting that there would be circumstances in which the LA seeking a section 20 agreement and accommodating the child as a result would be a breach of the mother’s article 8 rights and compensation of some kind is payable.

[Going back to my overarching theme of the law of unintended consequences, I hope HMCS are aware of the deluge of Emergency Protection Order applications that might flow from this sort of decision, as these s20 arrangements are often a stopgap or bridge to get into Court for an ICO hearing, which is now seemingly no longer an option]

It is important to note that there were genuine doubts about the mother’s capacity to agree to section 20 accommodation, as a result of her significant learning difficulties. At the time that the agreement was sought, the mother was also being asked about consenting to medical treatment (for herself, which would be life-saving) and to pain relief including morphine (for herself).

There must obviously have been some reservations about whether the mother was in a position to give valid agreement to accommodate the child under s20 of the Children Act 1989, but the Court go beyond that, and into a discussion of whether a Local Authority can properly invite a parent to give s20 consent if the circumstances are not such that a Court would authorise separation, before concluding that they cannot.

Obviously, that’s quite a big deal, and is something fresh in law. A parent can still ask for s20 accommodation, for whatever reason, but if a Local Authority is asking a parent to agree to it, they run the risk of a human rights financial claim if they did not, at that time, have the sort of evidence that would persuade a Court to sanction removal/separation.

  Prior to this case, as a matter of strict law, the Local Authority did not need to even have reasonable grounds to believe that the threshold criteria are made out, let alone that there was a reasonable prospect of persuading a Court to sanction separation, in order to ASK a parent to agree to s20 accommodation.

I think that there are plenty of cases – the obvious type being a mother who has previously had four or five children removed, but where the concerns are neglect-based rather than a risk of physical harm, where obtaining an EPO would be difficult and usually the first question asked by the LA lawyer of the social worker is ‘is mum willing to agree to s20 accommodation’ – it seems to me that asking that question now carries with it a degree of risk.

 

(The emboldening of key passages is author’s own)

 

27. However, the use of Section 20 is not unrestricted and must not be compulsion in disguise. In order for such an agreement to be lawful, the parent must have the requisite capacity to make that agreement. All consents given under Section 20 must be considered in the light of Sections 1-3 of the Mental Capacity Act 2005.

28. Moreover, even where there is capacity, it is essential that any consent so obtained is properly informed and, at least where it results in detriment to the giver’s personal interest, is fairly obtained. That is implicit in a due regard for the giver’s rights under Articles 6 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

29. Having made those observations, it is necessary specifically to consider how that may operate in respect of the separation of mother and child at the time of birth. The balance of this judgment is essentially limited to that situation, the one that arose in this case, though some observations will have a more general application.

30. It is to be assumed (as was the fact in this case) that there were reasonable grounds for believing that the child and mother should be separated and that the officers of the authority honestly believed that there were such reasonable grounds. In those circumstances a removal could be lawfully effected in one of four ways under the 1989 Act: by agreement under Section 20, by emergency protection order under Section 44, by the police under Section 46 or under an interim care order pursuant to Section 38. This range of options was considered by the Court of Appeal in A – v – East Sussex C.C. and Another [2010] 2FLR 1596. That case was not concerned with a removal at birth but it does stress the need for minimum intervention and the need to work in partnership with parents.

31. There is reasonably clear authority in respect of the compulsive powers under the Act. It is clear that court orders are to be preferred to administrative action and so Section 44 is accorded primacy over Section 46 – see Langley -v- Liverpool C.C. and Another [2006] 1WLR 375 especially per Dyson LJ at paragraphs 35-40. The regime and criteria for the use of Section 44 is fully set out in ‘X’ Council -v- B [2005] 1FLR 341 and X (Emergency Protection Orders) [2006] 2FLR 701 both approved by the Court of Appeal in A (Supra). The Court of Appeal have repeatedly returned to the subject of removal under an interim care order; for example in Re G (Interim Care Order) [2011] 2FLR 955 the authorities are reviewed and the conclusion reached that the court must consider whether the child’s safety requires removal and whether removal is proportionate in the light of the risk of leaving the child where she was.

32. On the facts of this case, it is most unlikely that any order would have been granted on 1st February. In saying that, it is of course accepted that had either the hospital required the discharge of the child or had the mother tried to procure it, an order would no doubt have been made. As it was, the mother was unable to leave and the hospital were not requiring discharge and it is probable that they would not have done so at least until the mother was fit for discharge.

33. In those circumstances the child was in a place of safety in hospital. All parties accept that in consequence the police would have had no power to remove under Section 46 and no order would have been granted under Section 44. Moreover, given the pre-birth plan and the mother’s co-operation in hospital, it is hard to see how immediate removal could have been justified let alone actually authorised under an interim care order.

34. Although many local authorities have policies and internal guidance in place in respect of post birth removals, the researches of very experienced leading counsel have not uncovered specific guidance in respect of the use of Section 20. There is none in publicly available guidance nor in any reported decision of the court. Since this removal, which would not have been sanctioned by a court, was in fact effected by consent, it is perhaps not surprising that the court is being asked to consider the proper ambit of Section 20 in this specific context.

35. It is necessary to state one obvious point which does not arise in this case but which, if not stated, will at least be thought by those inherently suspicious of local authority power: namely that it can never be permissible to seek agreement to do that which would not be authorised by order soley because it is known, believed or even suspected that no such authorisation would be given and in order to circumvent that position. That would breach all requirements of good faith and of fairness.

36. As I have already said, however, there will be cases where it is perfectly proper to seek agreement to immediate post-birth accommodation. Three obvious examples occur: first, where the mother’s intention always has been and remains to have the child placed for adoption; secondly where a parent has always accepted that the child must be removed and has consistently expressed a willingness to consent (but not of course just to acquiesce); and thirdly, where a parent whether by reason of supervening physical health or personal circumstance positively seeks accommodation of the child by social services. There will of course be others and the right to exercise parental responsibility by requesting accommodation under Section 20 and the local authority’s powers of response under Section 20(4) must be respected.

37. However, and whatever the context, Section 20 agreements are not valid unless the parent giving consent has capacity so to do. It is important to note that by Section 1(2) of the 2005 Act a person is to be presumed to have capacity unless it is established that he lacks it. Moreover, the effect of Section 1(4) is to prevent inferences of incapacity from the making of unwise decisions. Incapacity must be due on a “…impairment of, or disturbance in the functioning of the mind or brain” – Section 2(1). Capacity is issue and situation specific. It follows that not only may a person have capacity to make one decision but not another but also may have capacity at one time to make the very decision in respect of which he lacks capacity at another.

38. That can be seen in the context of this case. The fact that the mother could make decisions about surgery and pain relief does not indicate that she could make decisions about the removal of her child. Again the fact that before the birth or sometime after the birth she could make decisions about removal does not mean she could on the day of birth. This latter factor (the impact of the birth itself) is the basis on which Parliament enacted for example Section 52(3) of the 2002 Act in respect of adoption and Section 54(7) of the Human Fertilisation Act 2008 in respect of surrogacy.

39. Capacity is not always an easy judgment to make, and it is usually to be made by the person seeking to rely on the decision so obtained. Sometimes it will be necessary to seek advice from carers and family; occasionally a formal medical assessment may be required; always it will be necessary to have regard to Chapter 4 of the Code of Practice under the 2005 Act. Assistance is, however, to be found in Section 3 of the Act which provides by subsection (1) that a person is unable to make a decision if he is unable – a) to understand the information relevant to the decision, b) to retain that information, c) to use or weigh that information as part of the process of making the decision, or d) to communicate his decision… 4) The information relevant to a decision includes information about the reasonably foreseeable consequence of – a) deciding one way or the other, or b) failing to make the decision.

40. Applying that to the facts of the case, the social worker was the person finally to decide capacity and she had the views of the midwives. The key judgments to be made were probably the mother’s ability to use or weigh information surrounding removal and whether she understood that, if she refused, the child would stay in hospital with her. The first of those illustrates why a decision to agree to life-sustaining surgery is wholly different to a decision to consent to removal of the child. It is also clear that her attention was not called to the second matter at all.

 

A reading of paragraph 36 suggests (and there may be other interpretations) that separating a baby from a parent shortly after birth by way of section 20 ought to be a decision driven by the parent (that they genuinely want the child to be accommodated), and not the Local Authority seeking to cajole, influence, persuade (or if you’re cynical) browbeat, the parent into it.

 

And by implication, that such a separation, if the parent is not actively driving it, ought not to be done by s20, but instead by a decision of the Court.

One might think, very fairly, that this is right and proper, and that a parent ought not to be separated from their child because they are weak-willed or haven’t twigged that they have the right to say no when being pushed towards agreeing s20 accommodation by a social worker.

I find it a little hard to disagree with that, to be honest, but it is worth noting that this is quite a departure from where the law was prior to this decision.

Previously, it was incumbent on the parent to not say ‘yes’ to the accommodation being proposed, and for the LA to either issue or allow the child to remain with the parent. NOW, it will be incumbent on the LA to issue if they want separation and to tread extraordinarily carefully in any conversation about s20 accommodation for a baby.

It seems to me, from reading this judgment, that it might be lawful for a social worker to ask (with a huge amount of care, to explain what it means and what the possible consequences are and that the parent can say no) “do you want to voluntary accommodate your child?”  but NOT  anything like “I think it would be a good idea for your child to stay in foster care, do you agree?”

 

(I suspect that to get the wording bullet-proof on this, you’ll need something like the Miranda waiver so beloved of American cop shows… and that it will be so cumbersome that most social workers will just decide not to ask the question)

I think that this passage in particular, will be vital reading for social workers, local authority lawyers, out of hours workers, and those who might be representing parents either in the hours after the baby is born, or when a case pitches up to Court where the parents ‘agreed’ separation.

46. The following can perhaps be offered as the more important aspects –

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 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.

Do you think I was born yesterday?

 

 

 

A headlong rush through some of the key authorities on establishing whether a young person is young enough to receive services from a Local Authority

These cases chiefly involve unaccompanied asylum seekers, because they are a debate about whether the young person in question is under eighteen at the time they present to a Local Authority requesting either support under section 17 of the Children Act or accommodation under section 20 of the Act, AND there being a dispute about whether the young person is under 18 or over 18  – UK or European nationals tend to have documentation which will establish that age beyond doubt, whereas it is common practice for unaccompanied asylum-seekers to either not have such documentation, or to have destroyed it (in order to make it harder to establish where they should be sent back to)

Sadly for anyone trying to remember these cases, nearly all of the case names involve Croydon   (alternatively, if one is trying to bluff their way through a conversation about age-assessment cases, saying “of course, the Croydon case deals with this point” is a sensible tactic)

Our starting point is with R (on the application of B) v MERTON LONDON BOROUGH COUNCIL (2003)

[2003] EWHC 1689 (Admin)

QBD (Admin) (Stanley Burnton J) 14/07/2003

Which creates for us the eponymous “Merton” assessment,  and the Court indicating that there had to be a solid evidence-based and documented assessment by the Local Authority of how they had calculated the age of the young person, and what factors they had taken into account

HELD: (1) Where it was obvious that a person was under or over 18 years old there would normally be no need for an extended inquiry into their age. However, where, as in B’s case, a UASC could not provide any reliable documentary evidence to support his claim to be a minor, the determination of his age depended on the credibility of the history given, his physical appearance and his behaviour, factors which all interconnected. There was no statutory procedure or guidance issued to local authorities as to how to conduct an assessment of the age of a person claiming to be under 18 for the purpose of deciding on the applicability of Part III of the 1989 Act. Nor was there any reliable scientific test to determine whether a person was over or under 18. (2) It would be naive to assume that a UASC was unaware of the advantages of being classified as a child. A lack of travel documentation, including a passport, may justify suspicion, particularly where he claimed to have entered the country overtly in circumstances, for example through an airport, where a passport would be required. The matter could be determined informally, provided that minimum standards of inquiry and fairness were ensured. The decision-maker had to seek to elicit the general background of the UASC, including his family circumstances, his educational background and his history during the previous few years. Ethnic and cultural material might be important. A decision-maker would have to ask questions to assess a UASC’s credibility where there was reason to doubt it. It was not useful to apply notions of a burden of proof to the assessment. (3) A local authority’s social services department should not merely adopt a decision made by the Home Office, although it could take into account information obtained by the Home Office. (4) Merton had made its own assessment as to B’s age and not solely relied on the Home Office’s stance. The decision-maker’s reasons were inconsistent with the decision letter. However, it was permissible for the court to consider those reasons (Nash v Chelsea College of Art & Design (2001) EWHC 538). The evidence before the court represented the true basis of the decision and those reasons were adequate. A UASC was entitled to know the true reasons for an age assessment decision so that he could make an informed decision on whether to ask a local authority to review the decision or to make a complaint. The reasons did not need to be long or elaborate: it would have sufficed for the decision-maker to inform B that the decision was based on his appearance and behaviour and on the inconsistencies in his history which had made the decision-maker doubt his credibility. (5) The court should not impose unrealistic and unnecessary burdens on those required to make decisions such as this. Some cases would require more inquiry than others. The court should not be predisposed to assume that the decision-maker had acted unreasonably or carelessly or unfairly: it was for a claimant to establish that a decision-maker had so acted. It was not necessary to obtain a medical report. Nor was it necessary for a local authority to support a UASC for a period of days or weeks to give others an opportunity to observe him, if the information available was sufficient for a decision about his age to be made. It was greatly preferable for an interpreter to be physically present in an interview. Verbatim notes of an interview were also useful, although not essential as a matter of law. Such notes did not have to be counter-signed by a UASC. Procedural fairness required that a decision-maker explain the purpose of the interview to a UASC. (6) If a decision-maker formed the preliminary view that a UASC was lying about his age, he had to be given an opportunity to address the issues that led to that view (R (on the application of Q) v Secretary of State for the Home Department (2003) EWCA Civ 364). The decision-maker had failed to give B such an opportunity. Merton failed to establish that B’s responses could not have reasonably altered the decision. There was not a suitable alternative procedure for B to challenge the decision: there was no evidence about Merton’s complaints procedure; moreover, any complaint under s.26 of the 1989 Act would have been too slow for a child without accommodation or support. Therefore Merton’s decision had to be set aside and Merton had to reassess B’s age.

I note, with grim interest, this part of the Merton decision… “The court should not impose unrealistic and unnecessary burdens on those required to make decisions such as this” sadly, this is a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance.

There were other cases prior to Merton, but this was the big one, where the Courts made a solid attempt to get to grip with the issue of young persons asking for services and Local Authorities refusing on the basis that they appeared to be older than the group who were entitled to such services.

If the Courts felt that Merton  (do a good Merton assessment, make your decision, and it won’t be judicially reviewed) would put an end to the flood of judicial review challenges, on age assessments, they were sadly wrong.

There was litigation about medical evidence, about whether medical evidence was of any use at all, about whether the Local Authority had given enough weight to the medical evidence even though it was fundamentally not of assistance (there being finally acceptance that when deciding if a young person is 17 or 19, a medical test that is only accurate to within 2 years doesn’t help  – if one ever needs to argue this, R v Croydon –of course, helps R (on the application of R) v CROYDON LONDON BOROUGH COUNCIL (2011)[2011] EWHC 1473 (Admin) QBD (Admin) (Kenneth Parker J) 14/06/2011), and every single inch of the Merton assessments as lawyers nobly representing young persons sought to establish that the LA decision not to provide their client with services was “Wednesbury unreasonable”

There then came the decision of the Supreme Court, which knocked on the head any talk of ‘unreasonableness’ and judicial review, and determined that if there was a dispute between the LA and the young person about their age, this was a decision to be made by the Court.   (This had the, one hopes, inadvertent effect of massively expanding the number of potential cases, since one no longer had to show the Court that there was reason to believe the LA had been unreasonable in their age assessment, but just that the young person disagreed with it)

R (on the application of A) v LONDON BOROUGH OF CROYDON (Respondent) & (1) SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT (2) CHILDREN’S COMMISSIONER (Interveners) : R (on the application of M) v LONDON BOROUGH OF LAMBETH (Respondent) & (1) SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT (2) CHILDREN’S COMMISSIONER (Interveners) (2009)

HELD: (1) In s.17(10) a clear distinction was drawn between whether a person was a “child” and whether that child should be “taken to be” in need within the meaning of the Act. That suggested that they were two different kinds of question. “Taken to be” imported an element of judgment which Parliament may well have intended to be left to the local authority rather than the courts. But the word “child” was undoubtedly defined in wholly objective terms, however hard it might be to decide upon the facts of the particular case. It admitted only one answer. As stated by Scarman L; where the exercise of an executive power depended upon the precedent establishment of an objective fact, the courts would decide whether the requirement had been satisfied, R. v Secretary of State for the Home Department Ex p. Khawaja [1984] A.C. 74 considered. Whether a person was a child for the purposes of s.20(1) was therefore a question of fact which must ultimately be decided by the court. (2) (Obiter) Those conclusions made it unnecessary to come to any firm view on the application of art.6 to decisions under s.20(1) of the Act. The House of Lords in Begum v Tower Hamlets LBC [2003] UKHL 5, [2003] 2 A.C. 430 had been content to assume, without deciding, that a claim for suitable accommodation under the homeless provisions of the Housing Act 1996 was a civil right, but no Strasbourg case had yet gone so far, Begum considered. In the instant case, the court was reluctant to accept, unless driven by Strasbourg authority to do so, that art.6 required the judicialisation of claims to welfare services of the kind in M and X’s case. If the right to accommodation under s.20(1) was a civil right at all, it rested at the periphery of such rights and the present decision-making processes, coupled with judicial review on conventional grounds, were adequate to result in a fair determination within the meaning of art.6, Tsfayo v United Kingdom (Admissibility) (60860/00) (2004) 39 E.H.R.R. SE22 considered.

[It is worth noting that the Supreme Court also went on to determine that a person seeking a challenge to the LA about accommodating them did not trigger article 6 of the Human Rights Act – at the time, this was probably academic, but now that the free legal advice provisions that enabled all of this litigation to be brought may vanish, it becomes more relevant. ]

It is settled law that when approaching this task, the Court is not bound by any decision of other tribunals as to their resolution of age-assessment conflict, though they may take them into account

R (on the application of PM) v HERTFORDSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL (2010)

[2010] EWHC 2056 (Admin)

QBD (Admin) (Hickinbottom J) 04/08/2010

A local authority assessing the age of a young asylum seeker was not bound by an age assessment that the First-tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber) had made while hearing the asylum seeker’s asylum appeal.

The approach to be followed

 

Mr Justice Holman was the first judge to really grapple and set some guidance for the brave new world of Judges no longer just deciding whether the LA had behaved unreasonably, but actually deciding how old the young person in question was.  [Note that Mr Justice Holman ruled that the medical evidence was admissible into the fact-finding hearing, notwithstanding the earlier criticisms of it in the Croydon case referred to above, and also that he considered the cases to still run on a judicial review model, with permission being required]

R (on the application of F) v LEWISHAM LBC : R (on the application of D) (Claimant) v MANCHESTER CITY COUNCIL (Defendant) & SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT (Interested Party) : R (on the application of Z) v GREENWICH LBC : R (on the application of C) v CROYDON LBC : R (on the application of S) v SOUTHWARK LBC (2009)

[2009] EWHC 3542 (Admin)

QBD (Admin) (Holman J) 17/12/2009

HELD: (1) The approach to disputed age cases had been clarified by the Supreme Court. There still had to be an assessment by the local authority; judicial review was the appropriate mechanism and remedy for any challenge to that assessment and on any judicial review the essential issue was one of pure fact for the court, Lambeth LBC followed. The instant cases would be listed for a fact-finding hearing to determine whether, on the relevant date, C were children and if so, their date of birth. Once the court was required to engage on determination of whether a person was, on the relevant date, a child, it had to go on to make its own determination as to actual age or date of birth. (2) Proceedings such as the instant cases remained firmly proceedings for judicial review. Accordingly, permission was required before the claim could proceed. The relevant test for the grant of permission where the person had been assessed as over 18 years of age on the relevant date was whether there was a realistic prospect that at a substantive fact-finding hearing the court would reach a relevant conclusion that the person was of a younger age than that assessed by the local authority and was on the relevant date a child. Where a local authority had assessed the person as under 18 years of age on the relevant date, the test was whether there was a realistic prospect that the court would conclude that the person was of a younger age than that assessment. (3) The standard of proof in all such cases was the ordinary civil standard of the balance of probability. As to the question of where the evidential burden lay, that was entirely a matter for the judge at a final hearing and might depend on the facts and circumstances of individual cases. (4) If local authorities wished to defend cases by reliance on assessments of their social workers, then they had to produce those social workers for cross-examination if required. (5) Fact-finding hearings could not ordinarily take place without some involvement of the claimant and the engagement of the claimant with the court as, in most if not all cases, there was some issue as to the credibility of the claimant and the account that he or she had given regarding their history. However, the extent to which, and manner in which, a claimant participated or gave evidence was quintessentially a matter for the judge. (6) A major issue in such cases had been whether a decision of the local authority not to take into account medical evidence rendered the underlying decision regarding age assessment vulnerable to judicial review. There was nothing in the judgment of Collins J to indicate that such medical evidence was so unreliable or so unhelpful that it could simply be ignored altogether. The evolution of the approach to be taken indicated that such medical reports could not be disregarded by local authorities or by the court, Croydon LBC considered. Therefore, in the instant cases in which there was already such evidence, that evidence could be admitted into the proceedings and relied on.

Mr Justice Garnham QC developed this practical guidance further, in that the Court was not obliged to nail their colours to the mast on a firm date of birth, but rather to assess what was the most likely of a range of dates proferred.

R (on the application of N) v CROYDON LONDON BOROUGH COUNCIL (2011)

[2011] EWHC 862 (Admin)

QBD (Admin) (Neil Garnham QC) 16/03/2011

HELD: (1) A declaration as to a person’s date of birth could not be granted as a matter of course, especially in circumstances such as in the instant case where the declaration had potential effects on third parties who were not before the court, including the Home Office. Such a declaration would only be appropriate after careful consideration of the evidence. A court had to exercise an original jurisdiction and determine the precedent fact of whether the claimant was a child, and if so, his date of birth, for which the standard of proof was the ordinary civil standard of a balanced probability, R. (on the application of A) v Croydon LBC [2009] UKSC 8, [2009] 1 W.L.R. 2557 followed and R. (on the application of F) v Lewisham LBC [2009] EWHC 3542 (Admin), [2010] 1 F.L.R. 1463 applied. A court faced with such a question was not considering whether it had been shown on the balance of probabilities that a particular date was the true date of birth, but making an assessment of the most likely date of birth after comparing a wide potential range of dates, MC v Liverpool City Council [2010] EWHC 2211 (Admin), [2011] 1 F.L.R. 728 applied. Where all other factors were equal, the date might well be the middle of the appropriate range, because proximity to error increased towards the extreme ends of the range (see paras 2-5, 9, 35 of judgment).

Burden of proof

There had been some debate about whether the burden of proof was on the young person (since they were claiming to be a child and entitled to services) or the Local Authority (since they were claiming that the young person in question was not entitled to the services)

The Court of Appeal determined last year in R (on the application of CJ (BY HIS LITIGATION FRIEND SW)) v CARDIFF COUNTY COUNCIL (2011)

[2011] EWCA Civ 1590   that the burden of proof was not on the young person to prove that they were under 18, reversing the decision that had been made in the High Court on the same case.

The High Court’s supervision of the exercise of jurisdiction by an inferior court, tribunal or public body was not an issue which could be resolved according to the private interests of the parties. The nature of the court’s inquiry under the 1989 Act was inquisitorial and to speak in terms of a burden of establishing a precedent or jurisdictional fact was inappropriate. Once the court was invited to make a decision on jurisdictional fact, it could do no more than apply the balance of probability to the issue. A distinction needed to be made between a legal burden of proof and the sympathetic assessment of evidence. In evaluating the evidence it might well be appropriate to expect conclusive evidence from a claimant but the nature of the evaluation would depend on the particular facts of the case. Where a range of powers and duties which were exercisable dependent on the age of an individual were raised in the same proceedings, it would be highly undesirable for contradictory findings to be made as to the existence of the precedent fact. The nature of the inquiry in which the court would be engaged was itself a strong reason for departure from the common law rule which applied a burden on one or other of the parties. The court, in its inquisitorial role, had to ask whether the precedent fact existed on a balance of probability

.

[It is worth noting, however, that in the particular case, notwithstanding that the young person did not have to prove that he was under 18, the Court of Appeal agreed with the conclusion of the High Court that the young person was in fact over 18 and thus not entitled to the services he was seeking. ]

On burden of proof – the Courts have also ruled that the issue of burden of proof should only arise where the matter is so finely balanced that it was only this that would tip the balance

R (on the application of U) v CROYDON LONDON BOROUGH COUNCIL (2011)

[2011] EWHC 3312 (Admin)

QBD (Admin) (Judge David Pearl) 14/12/2011

HELD: When considering an age-assessment case, a judge had first to examine all of the evidence that had been presented and try to arrive at an assessment of the person’s age. Only if it was a close decision would it be necessary to resort to the burden of proof,

Is the judgment on age assessment confined to the Children Act proceedings, or broader?

 

In R (on the application of MWA) v (1) SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT (2) BIRMINGHAM CITY COUNCIL (2011)

[2011] EWHC 3488 (admin)

QBD (Admin) (Beatson J) 21/12/2011

 

The High Court found that the young person was over 18 and agreed with the Local Authority age assessment – disagreeing with two decisions of the Asylum and Immigration Panel that he was under 18.  (This of course poses an interesting internal dilemma, since the Court’s decision is binding for the purposes of the Children Act, but the AIP for the purposes of asylum and immigration, and the young person is currently occupying a state of flux akin to Schroedinger’s cat, being simultaneously under 18 and over 18. )

 

but, hoorah! The Court has also resolved this, by indicating the cases in which it is sensible for the age-assessment decision to be binding on everyone.

 

 

R (on the application of AS (BY HIS LITIGATION FRIEND THE OFFICIAL SOLICITOR)) v CROYDON LONDON BOROUGH COUNCIL (2011)

[2011] EWHC 2091 (Admin)

QBD (Admin) (Judge Anthony Thornton QC) 25/10/2011

it was possible to identify factors which had to be established for a declaration to be made in rem. A claimant had to show that: (a) the determination was in the form of a judgment and not simply a finding of facts upon which a judgment was based; (b) the tribunal had jurisdiction to make the relevant determination; (c) the relevant statute, expressly or by necessary implication, conferred on the tribunal the jurisdiction to make a determination in rem, indicated by the conferral of exclusive jurisdiction to make a final determination about the status of the claimant; (d) the judgment was final, on the merits and not by consent; and (e) there was a public interest in the judgment being one which bound everyone

I have found over forty reported cases on age assessments of unaccompanied asylum seekers, and those obviously don’t include any that are resolved by a Court but don’t have any particularly interesting or novel clarifications of points of law.  That includes seventeen in 2011 and thirty since the Supreme Court ruling.

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