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)
 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) 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  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  UKHL 5,  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)
 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)
 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)
 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  UKSC 8,  1 W.L.R. 2557 followed and R. (on the application of F) v Lewisham LBC  EWHC 3542 (Admin),  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  EWHC 2211 (Admin),  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)
 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)
 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)
 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)
 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.
Given the lack of statutory training in this area do you think that many local authority assessors understand their obligations under CPR 35?
I suspect not, Ken. I think the CPR is one of those things that people just jedi-hand-wave out of existence.