A major theme in family case law over the last 2-3 years has been misuse of section 20 – voluntary accommodation, with all sorts of guidance being provided, culminating in the President of the Family Division giving a decision in Re N 2015 which just invented huge new chunks of legal obligations on Local Authorities and threatening damages if they didn’t obey.
That in turn, quite coincidentally, led to the biggest increases in number of care proceedings issued that we have seen since the Baby P crisis hit. It is a complete coincidence, of course. I mean, over that same period of time, we haven’t actually seen the number of children in foster care go up at all, but we have seen the number of care proceedings go up by 35%, but the two things are utterly unrelated.
As I’ve said before, I do think that there was a genuine problem with section 20 misuse and it needed to be addressed – I just think we swapped one problem for three others – an increased demand which the system utterly couldn’t manage, an increased layer of complexity and time in dealing with claims being added into care proceedings which the system utterly couldn’t manage, and an insoluble problem about how to deal with the cost issues caused by the statutory charge which, you’ve guessed it…
(And also, as I’ve said before, I’d be entirely up for Parliament to review s20 and put in some stronger safeguards for parents – I think a very short limit on the initial s20 and it to be reviewed at a meeting to which parents have free legal advice would be a start)
Anyway, the Court of Appeal today have given judgment on an appeal from one of the early s20 damages cases – this was one where the police removed children after the father hit one of them with a belt, the police arrested the parents and gave them bail conditions not to live with the children, and the parents objected to s20. The parents later sued the LA for breach of their human rights in continuing the s20 without their express consent.
I wrote about the original case at the time, and if WordPress ever stops behaving like a four year old hopped up on Tartrazine, I’ll put a link in.
London Borough of Hackney v Williams & Anor  EWCA Civ 26 (26 January 2017)
(you can skip right to the end if you just want the reboot paragraph, I’ve put it in super large font)
So this is an appeal from an award for £10,000 damages against Hackney, where the parents had been arrested and had bail conditions not to be with the children. The LA asked for s20, the parents refused to sign and the LA relied upon the statute that the parents were prevented (for whatever reason) from providing accommodation and thus s20 (1) (c) was met, and that the parents objection had to be looked at in the context of s20(7) which states
(7) A local authority may not provide accommodation under this section for any child if any person who—
(a) has parental responsibility for him; and
(b) is willing and able to—
(i) provide accommodation for him; or
(ii) arrange for accommodation to be provided for him, objects.
The parents were objecting, but weren’t providing any alternative accommodation, and weren’t in fact able to provide their own accommodation (because they would have then been in breach of bail conditions, and arrested. So the LA view was that it wasn’t a legal objection because they weren’t able to meet (b) (i) or (ii)
This all happened, by the way, in 2007.
The High Court looked at it in September 2015 , and decided that the bail conditions weren’t sufficient to defeat the objection under s20(7) and awarded the parents £10,000 compensation each, plus costs. The High Court were clear that the allegations that led to the arrest were largely true (the father had hit the child with a belt) but nonetheless the parents human rights had been breached by the LA s20ing the children without consent, rather than seeking consent or a court order.
This, 18 months later, reaches the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal look at Sir Mark Hedley’s decision in Coventry City Council v C  EWHC 2190 (Fam) , and the Court of Appeal decisions giving judicial guidance on s20 cases Re B (Looked after child)  EWCA Civ 964 (sub nom Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council v Others); Re W (Children)  EWCA Civ 1065; and Re N (Adoption: Jurisdiction)  EWCA 1112.
The Court of Appeal say that those cases didn’t have to specifically determine a s20 issue, so where they have made comments, they are obiter and not binding. Specifically, what the President says in Re N is not binding on the Court of Appeal in a case where argument has been specifically heard on the s20 and where s20 is a ratio issue.
59.In relation to item (d), after setting out the terms of s. 20(8), Sir James stated (at ):
‘This means what it says. A local authority which fails to permit a parent to remove a child in circumstances within section 20(8) acts unlawfully, exposes itself to proceedings at the suit of the parent and may even be guilty of a criminal offence. A parent in that position could bring a claim against the local authority for judicial review or, indeed, seek an immediate writ of habeas corpus against the local authority. I should add that I am exceedingly sceptical as to whether a parent can lawfully contract out of section 20(8) in advance, as by agreeing with the local authority to give a specified period of notice before exercising their section 20(8) right.’
60.In conclusion, Sir James set out further requirements of good practice, in addition to those identified by Hedley J before stating :
‘The misuse and abuse of section 20 in this context is not just a matter of bad practice. It is wrong; it is a denial of the fundamental rights of both the parent and the child; it will no longer be tolerated; and it must stop. Judges will and must be alert to the problem and pro-active in putting an end to it. From now on, local authorities which use section 20 as a prelude to care proceedings for lengthy periods or which fail to follow the good practice I have identified, can expect to be subjected to probing questioning by the court. If the answers are not satisfactory, the local authority can expect stringent criticism and possible exposure to successful claims for damages.’
72.Finally, in Re N, the judgment of Sir James Munby P does repeat his conclusion that parental consent is required by the statute; this can most conveniently be seen from two sentences (from ):
A Local Authority cannot use its powers under section 20 if a parent “objects”: see section 20(7). So where, as here, the child’s parent is known and in contact with the local authority, the local authority requires the consent of the parent.”
73.In considering this passage in the President’s extensive judgment in Re N, it is necessary to be clear that any issues relating to s. 20 were very much at the periphery of that case, the focus of which was the jurisdiction of the English Family Court to make orders leading to adoption with respect to foreign nationals. It seems plain that the section of the judgment as to the working out of arrangements for s. 20 accommodation arose from concern, evidenced by a raft of recent first instance decisions, as to social work practice in general. No issue in the case of Re N turned on the interpretation of s. 20, or, indeed, on any matter with respect to s. 20. It is apparent that Sir James was using the opportunity provided by the fact that the children in Re N had been accommodated for eight months before the local authority issued care proceedings as a hook upon which to hang some, no doubt timely, firmly worded and important good practice guidance. Despite the respect that this court undoubtedly has for the opinion of a judge of such authority on these matters, the short judicial statement (in ) following a hearing at which the interpretation of s. 20 was not in issue cannot be binding upon this court where the focus is directly upon s. 20 and where there has been full argument.
Therefore, s20(7) does apply where the parent is not able to provide accommodation themselves, or is unable to provide alternative accommodation. In those circumstances, a parent’s objection does not defeat s20 – they need to be able to provide accommodation themselves or from third parties in order to satisfactorily object.
That does NOT mean, and should not be interpreted to mean that in a scenario where the parent says “I object to s20, the child can come home with me’ that the LA can hide behind s20(7) and say that the home offered was unsuitable or dangerous, or they didn’t think it was a good idea. S20(7) goes only as far as the parent not being ABLE to have the child live with them (think bail conditions, homelessness, incarceration or detention in mental health hospital, that sort of thing) and where they aren’t able to provide any other accommodation. It doesn’t cover “the child could live with my brother Mike” and the Social worker going “hell no”
74.I recognise that, in the context of the cases that he was then considering, it may well have been appropriate for Sir James to equate the obligation on a local authority not to use its powers under section 20 if a parent ‘objects’ as meaning, effectively, that when the parent is known and in contact with the authority, consent is required but, in my judgment, it would be wrong to elevate the requirement of consent into a rule of law that operates in all circumstances. In this case, the parents had the benefit of solicitors experienced in both family and criminal law. Their ability to apply to remove the prohibition on contact with the children was well known and emphasised by the solicitors in correspondence. The local authority was not responsible for the bail condition and had no obligation to take proactive steps to have it removed. If the solicitors had wanted the local authority to express a view, an appropriate official could have been requested to do so by the court or been the subject of a witness summons to attend.
75.On any showing, it was not for the local authority to aid and abet the flouting of the bail condition and it is not sufficient to argue that the local authority should have sought to persuade the police to modify the condition. The only inference to be drawn from the fact that the condition remained in place was that the parents (no doubt on advice) were prepared to negotiate with the police rather than risk a conflict in court. In those circumstances, for the period that the bail condition remained in place, they were not in a position to provide accommodation for them within s. 20(7)(b)(ii) of the 1989 Act and were thus not in a position legally to object whether or not they formally consented.
76.Thus, the continued existence of the bail condition had the twin consequence that Mr and Mrs Williams, firstly, were ‘prevented … for whatever reason’ from providing suitable accommodation and care for their children (s 20(1) of the 1989 Act) and, secondly, were not ‘able’ to provide accommodation for them in order to trigger their statutory right to object (s 20(7) ibid
This is the really important bit, with wider implications than the bail conditions/parent in prison objecting to s20 though.
77.Before passing from the issue of s. 20 of the 1989 Act and consideration of the guidance given by Sir James Munby P, Hedley J and others in the Family Division cases to which I have referred, I wish to stress that nothing that is said in this judgment is intended to, or should be read as, altering the content and effect of that guidance in family cases. The focus of the court in the present appeal is on the bottom-line legal requirements that are established by s 20 and within which a local authority must act. The guidance given in the family court, which has built upon that bottom-line in the period since the Williams’ children were removed, identifies clear, cooperative and sensible ways in which a voluntary arrangement can be made between a parent and a local authority when a child may need to be accommodated; it is, in short, good practice guidance and a description of the process that the family court expects to be followed. For reasons of good administration, the practice guidance should continue to be followed, notwithstanding the limits of the underlying legal requirements in s 20 that I have identified but a failure to follow it does not, of itself, give rise to an actionable wrong, or found a claim for judicial review.
I would expect to see that paragraph quoted by Local Authorities in response to any suggestion of HRA claims for s20 damages in the future. There may be circumstances where this sort of breach does give rise to action, and we’ll have to wait to see that litigated, but it is going to need something more than just failure to comply with the guidance. The Court of Appeal were also scathing about the proportionality of litigating this particular HRA claim – the damages were out of proportion to the costs and the Court also made it very clear that they considered the quantum of damages to be significantly more than they would have contemplated.
This brings me to another trend in family law – we had the raised test for interim care orders, which caused all sorts of mayhem and was eventually rolled back by the Court of Appeal saying ‘oh, nobody meant what you all thought’, then the raised test for adoption, which caused all sorts of mayhem and was eventually rolled back by the Court of Appeal saying ‘oh, nobody meant what you all thought’ and now the raised tests for s20, which caused all sorts of mayhem and has now been rolled back by the Court of Appeal saying ‘oh, they DID mean it, but they weren’t actually able to apply the teeth to it that they thought they were applying’
Perhaps when far-reaching judicial speeches that go further than the issue being litigated next arises, the Courts could hear full argument about the implications of what they are contemplating? Or, heaven forbid, just only tell us what the law means where it is the issue in the case and the law is unclear, rather than reworking the plain words of the Statute into what you happen to wish they said instead?