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section 20 and Brussels II

 

If section 20 voluntary accommodation has been the Wild West for most of the 25 year duration of the Children Act 1989, then in the last few years the Courts have been polishing up the sheriff badges and bringing law and order to the Wild West.  As a result, the territory that remains wild and lawless is shrinking, and may in a few years be limited to a bare patch of land with tumbleweed and old-timers chewing tobacco and relaying curious yarns of how things used to be, way back when.

[If you want to sing that every cowboy has a sad sad song, just as every rose has its thorns, now would be the time]

 

We have had:-

 

Re CA (A baby) 2012  http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2012/2190.html

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

Re C (a child) 2014  – dealing with parents who were deaf and had cognitive issues  http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed128597

there was no provision for interpretation when the father made the important step of agreeing to his baby daughter being accommodated under section 20 of the Children Act. To rely upon the mother who, even if she did not have the unfortunate cognitive disability she has, to interpret complicated matters such as section 20 of the Children Act and the authority being given to the local authority to the father was to put an undue burden on her. Once one understands that she does have these disabilities, it seems to have been wholly inadequate for her to act as an interpreter for him at that crucial meeting

Re P (A child: Use of section 20) 2014 http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2014/775.html

It goes without saying that it is totally inappropriate for a local authority to hold a child in s. 20 accommodation for 2 years without a plan. That is what happened here. The local authority has “disabled” these parents from being able to parent their child with every day of inactivity that has passed. The driver for the issue of proceedings was the parents’ lawyers making clear that they did not give their consent. To its credit LBR, during the hearings before me, has accepted its errors in this regard and has tried to make good but there needs to be a careful examination internally of how it was this family was treated in this way.

Northamptonshire and DS 2014 http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2015/199.html   :- The use of the provisions of s.20 Children Act 1989 to accommodate was, in my judgment, seriously abused by the local authority in this case. I cannot conceive of circumstances where it would be appropriate to use those provisions to remove a very young baby from the care of its mother, save in the most exceptional of circumstances and where the removal is intended to be for a matter of days at most.

 

We can add to that now, this important passage from Hayden J in  RE SR (A child) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2015/742.html

I must emphasise that where there is, as here, obvious potential for a jurisdictional issue, protracted periods under section 20 voluntary arrangements are highly undesirable. For my part, I simply cannot see how it was ever thought that such an arrangement was appropriate in this case. It has led to avoidable delay and has proved to be inimical to SR’s welfare. Moreover, the objective within care proceedings must always be to consider any conflict of jurisdiction at the earliest stages and, if the matter needs to be tried, it should be so expeditiously.

 

In this case, there had been a very difficult argument about whether the child was habitually resident in England or Morocco. As you can see, the view of Hayden J was that section 20 was inappropriate in a case where there was a real issue about whether the English legal system had jurisdiction.

If you do Brussels II work, there is some very helpful advice about the Moroccan legal system as it relates to children, that would save hours of painful research.

I was persuaded, on the 12th January 2015, to permit instruction of an expert in Islamic and Middle Eastern Law to address key legal and cultural features of the Moroccan care system. Mr Andrew Allen was instructed, an expert in Islamic and Middle Eastern law, a practising barrister, formerly a Deputy Director of the Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law at the University of |London. The child’s solicitor took the lead in Mr Allen’s instruction. Nine questions were identified which were answered succinctly in summary following, a more detailed exegesis of the law. They were ultimately non contentious. To complete my summary of the competing jurisdictional frameworks I set them out in full:

1. What are the principles that determine an application under Moroccan law for the following orders in relation to a child:

(i) Parental responsibility or rights;

(ii) Custody; and

(iii) Access.

Both parents have parental responsibility. No application is required.

The basic principle applied in custody and access applications is the interests of the child.

2. Does Moroccan law provide as a matter of right or custom for custody changing from one parent to another or to another person during the course of a child’s childhood?

There is no shift from mother to father at a certain age, as is the case in some Muslim countries (unless the mother re-marries)Article 171 of the Mudawana provides that priority in terms of child custody goes first to the mother, then the father, then the maternal grandmother, unless a judge determines otherwise “in view of what would serve the interests of the child”. Applications can be made during a child’s minority and custody can shift. Article 170 states that “The right of custody shall be restored to the person entitled to it when the grounds for its withdrawal no longer exist. The court may reconsider custody when it is in the interests of the child.” Once a child is 15, the child may chose which parent to live with under Article 166.

3. Is there any form of public funding or legal aid available for making any application for orders identified in (1) above?

Public funding is theoretically available. I would tentatively suggest that the practicalities of finding a sufficiently informed lawyer to take on a case for a foreigner, under the Moroccan legal aid system are probably insurmountable.

4. Do the Moroccan courts have experience of recognising and enforcing orders between the UK and Morocco under the 1996 Hague Convention?

The Mudawana is drafted with express reference to Morocco’s international treaty obligations. I am unaware of any Moroccan case applying the 1996 Hague Convention in relation to the UK but the convention does apply as between Morocco and the UK. The existence of the Convention is not known by all Moroccan family judges. Its application is not uniform.

5. How long would it take for a Moroccan court to recognise and enforce an order made in England and Wales?

A Moroccan court would not simply ‘recognise and enforce’ a UK court order. It would give it due weight (in particular if the order is provided in Arabic translation). If Morocco became the habitual residence of SR, then the Moroccan Courts would have jurisdiction and will apply Moroccan law, taking into account UK law (or a UK court order) if appropriate. I do not have knowledge of how long any Moroccan family court process would typically take.

6. Can proceedings be initiated, and if they can which body would initiate them, in respect of a child who is suffering or may suffer significant harm in Morocco?

There is a child protection system in Morocco and the government of Morocco operates a child protection policy. However most child custody issues are sorted out within the family. There have been criticisms of the Moroccan child protection system as it has been applied to returned asylum seekers from mainland Europe (specifically Spain).[1] Under Article 177, the Office of the Public Prosecutor (which despite its name is a part of the judiciary and deals with civil, family and criminal matters) would initiate any court action necessary. Article 172 of the Mudawana states that “The court may resort to the assistance of a social worker to prepare a report on the custodian’s home and the extent to which it meets the material and moral needs of the child.”

7. In what circumstances would the proceedings contemplated in (6) be initiated?

In any of the situations covered by Article 54 of the Mudawana (as set out above).

8. Prior to the mother’s removal of SR from the jurisdiction of Morocco what rights did the father have under Moroccan law in relation to SR?

The father had obligations towards SR as a parent rather than rights. Custody would have gone to the mother under Article 171 of the Mudawana. The father would have had the right to contact under Article 180 and the right referred to in the question below.

9. Did the father have any right, without applying to court, to object to the removal of SR from Morocco by the mother?

Article 179 of the Mudawana gives the court the ability to impose restrictions. In the absence of a court order, the commentary that I have read appears consistently to state that a father must approve a child’s departure from Morocco. I have been unable to locate a specific statute or other piece of legislation confirming this point.

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About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

10 responses

  1. judi@familymckenzie

    I am really keen to know the overall picture of the use of section 20. I have set up a very simple survey on my blog.http://bitly.com/1B0mq2K Some results are emerging but It would be great for as many parents to fill it in as possible.The information is also being shared with http://www.childprotectionresource.org.uk/

  2. Lessons must be learned from recent court cases but please don’t be flippant about history. As an old-timer, I believe we need to go back to basics because many children’s social workers today do not have a sound grasp of the law. In the early days of the 1989 Act unlawful social work practice regarding the use of s.20 was unheard of. The reasons for this were that all staff underwent practice-based in-service training courses during the lead up to the new Act. Then, in the period after its implementation in 1991 a lot of different research on the workings of the Act was carried out and brought together in ‘Messages from Research’ and this became an important guide to good social work practice.

    The problems with s.20 began when LAs introduced the Common Assessment Framework. This created confusion by bringing together the very different tasks of assessment of need and investigation of abuse and, in the more dysfunctional authorities, created confusion about the extent and limits of social workers’ legal powers. Also, the introduction of the term ‘safeguarding’ made social workers assume that they had more powers than they really had. Social workers now find the law so confusing they seek information by ‘word of mouth’ and do not have time to read the law and understand it properly. Hence they pick up bad practices and learn to be devious and manipulative. It is not surprising they use s.20 inappropriately.

    • To be fair to social workers, it doesn’t feel when you read these cases that they are necessarily being corrected in their misunderstandings by either senior managers or lawyers who are advising them. The amount of law and guidance can easily become overwhelming – I forget often that not every lawyer is a law geek like me. I must look at what the section 20 parts of Hershman says, because that’s where most family lawyers go if they are unsure. (I suspect the issue with s20, and absolutely the issue with Police Protection is that people are very confident and sure that they know how it can be used, but their confidence is misplaced. Any Police Protection removal that has social work fingerprints on it is very vulnerable to challenge)

  3. Surrey County Council –v- M, F & E [2012] EWHC [2400] a decision of Mrs. Justice Theis and at paragraph 60 she said this:-

    “To use the section 20 procedure in circumstances where there was the overt threat of a police protection order if they did not agree, reinforced by the physical presence of uniformed police officers, was wholly inappropriate. By adopting this procedure the local authority sought to circumvent the test any court would have required them to meet if they sought to secure an order, either by way of an EPO or interim care order.”

    Too often parents sign a section 20 Under threat from a social worker that they will lose their child if they do not sign immediately ! Horrible social workers should read the case above ! ……………………

  4. Pingback: section 20 and Brussels II | Children In Law | ...

  5. Thank you Mr Suesspicousminds for posting the link to the survey. Responses are starting to trickle in and it’s not a pretty picture. Admittedly those parents who are upset by the process are more likely to want to fill it in ,so there will be bias. Thank you to those of you have done so, it really is appreciated.

  6. So courts have decided that LAs are unlawful in the way conflicting principles of ‘partnership with parents’ and ‘safeguarding children’ are being resolved in some cases. Clearly, there are problems for social workers in establishing trust and genuine partnership when they make informal arrangements. A certain amount of formality in working relationships is probably a good thing.

    The issue is really about how much coercion can be used to reach a voluntary agreement? Possibly, confusion has arisen over the meaning of s.20 par(4): ‘A local authority may provide accommodation for any child within their area (even though a person who has parental responsibility for him is able to provide him with accommodation) if they consider that to do so would safeguard or promote the child’s welfare.’ This requires professional judgement based on a proper understanding of the law. Instead it seems that some LAs wrongly use vague safeguarding concerns to justify removal of a child under s.20.

    Working in partnership with parents is an important principle but occasionally social workers need to take action to protect the child without consulting parents. In an emergency they might decide, if compulsive powers become necessary, to use s.44 ex parte – but even this draconian step should not stop them trying to work in a collaborative way with parents. Placement of the child with relatives sometimes helps to convey the idea that collaborative working may be possible and this kind of approach may be considered when s.20 does not offer sufficient protection for the child.

    • Yes, I think Hedley J captured it very well in Re CA – s20 where it is an informed and free choice is valid, but s20 where the parent has one arm up behind their back is not really s20 at all and should more properly be an application for an EPO/ICO. There are some occasions when a period of respite or breathing space can be all that is needed to resolve things and a genuine s20 consent can be useful there.

      (I think to be honest a decent rule of thumb is ‘if the parent asked for this child back this afternoon, how would you feel?’ – if it is a genuine s20, that ought to not make you feel worried, fearful or panicked)

      Your point on s20(4) is well made – it is viewed in that way by some workers – important to remember that the objection clause in s20(7) or the removal clause in s20(8). I am not sure that parents are routinely told about those legal provisions when they are asked to agree to s20.

      • With the election looming I have been reflecting on the reality of tighter budgets and cost effectiveness. Radical reform is urgently needed because the child protection system is at breaking point.

        If social work wants to be a real profession it should stop making so many legal errors (due to misunderstandings and misplaced confidence about legal powers) that result in costly legal proceedings. I suggest that social workers should only be involved in court work if they are accredited and have passed a written test, to ensure they have at least a sound grasp of the 1989 Children Act. Children’s social work should follow the example set by the ‘Approved Mental Health Professional’ – a role which carries quite specific legal duties. I’m glad that the Chief Social Worker is pushing for this.

        (Only problem is who is qualified to set the written test?)

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