This case is a Court of Appeal decision on something that I’ve never even contemplated before.
If a family are getting bullied or harassed by other local residents, and the Housing authority won’t rehouse the family – can the family SUE the local authority for failing to remove their children into care? (And by inference therefore, DO Local Authorities HAVE to remove children who are being bullied on their local estates if the Housing Department won’t evict the bullies or rehouse the family)
It’s a question that immediately made me go “what the eff? Of course not. And why on earth is a parent trying to sue a local authority for NOT taking their kids off them?”
They were though, see
8.Causation is pleaded in the following terms:
“6.3 On the balance of probabilities competent investigation at any stage would have led to the removal of the Claimants from home. A child in need assessment should with competent care have been carried out in respect of each Claimant by September 2006 at the latest. By September 2006 no competent local authority would have failed to carry out a detailed assessment and on the balance of probabilities such detailed assessment if carried out competently would and should have led to the conclusion that each of the Claimants required removal from home if the family as a whole could not be moved. [Emphasis added] With the information obtained by competent assessment in September 2006 on application to the Court the Defendant would have obtained at lest respite care and if necessary by interim care orders in respect of each Claimant. Any competent local authority should and would have arranged for their removal from home into at least temporary care.”
(Bearing in mind that the parents have the power to accommodate their child under s20 by simply asking, this really is the parents suing the local authority for failing to remove their children against their will….)
But it turns out that the answer given to the question first time around was, yes absolutely. And the answer given was in the High Court, which meant it was binding precedent for CJs and below (which fortunately we all missed because Housing lawyers, tort lawyers and care lawyers don’t talk to each other)
Hence there being an appeal. And if the answer stays yes, brace yourselves for a HUGE spike in care proceedings – which is JUST what we all want at this moment, amiright? #sorrytobreakyoursarcasmfilters
CN and another v Poole Borough Council 2017
Before we start, the title is obviously a play on Poole, and is drawn from my favourite ever Flaming Lips song, which means that it is close to being one of my favourite songs period, because the Flaming Lips are just great.
The song is about Wayne Coyne’s brother, who got high on drugs and decided to go to a convenience store, only when he got there he couldn’t really walk or talk and freaked out the people at the store who called the cops. That’s too simple for a Flaming Lips song, so Wayne adds in that his brother develops a superpower to summon up a host of waterbugs to attack authority figures who are hassling him. And despite the weirdness of the subject matter, it ends up being a song that feels poignant and delicate and beautiful. Enjoy.
It was a pretty rotten situation for this family. Their child had severe physical and learning difficulties. There was another family on the estate, known for anti-social behaviour, who as the Court of Appeal say ‘predictably’ started to bully and behave dreadfully towards CN. CN attempted suicide.
You are already wondering why the family are suing the Children’s department of the LA (what we all still call Social Services) rather than Housing – since obviously what they wanted was to be rehoused.
That’s because there’s a firm and clear case called Mitchell, in which the House of Lords held that a person can’t sue the Housing department for this sort of thing.
58.Mr Mitchell was a secure tenant of the local authority, as was a neighbour named Drummond. After a long course of aggression and threats from Drummond, of which the council were fully aware, Drummond killed Mitchell. His widow sued, claiming that the council owed her husband a duty of care and should have intervened, at least by warning about a forthcoming meeting likely further to agitate Drummond. The council’s case was that they owed no duty of care to protect Mr Mitchell from criminal acts by Drummond.
So suing the Housing Department was out, and the lawyers acting for the family instead tried to construct a case on failure of the social services department to safeguard a child in their area from harm arising from the behaviour of people outside the family.
They were relying on a Court of Appeal authority called D v East Berkshire, which removed the previous blanket immunity of local authority social services departments against negligence claims (which had previously been a matter of public policy).
The Court of Appeal were somewhat critical of the failure of the legal representatives of the family to fail to properly grasp the nature of care proceedings. (They obviously weren’t family lawyers, and their understanding of care proceedings is probably on a par with my understanding of tort – I know the broad gist, but not the nuance)
108.Irwin LJ set out at paragraphs 6 – 8 above, the way in which this claim was pleaded namely that the children should have been ‘removed from the care of their mother’. Causation was pleaded as follows:
“6.3 …By September 2006 no competent local authority would have failed to carry out a detailed assessment and on the balance of probabilities such detailed assessment if carried out competently would and should have led to the conclusion that each of the Claimants required removal from home if the family as a whole could not be moved. With the information obtained by competent assessment in September 2006 on application to the Court the Defendant would have obtained at least respite care and if necessary by interim care orders in respect of each Claimant. Any competent local authority should and would have arranged for their removal from home into at least temporary care.”
109.I readily acknowledge that lawyers drafting pleadings in a case of this type may not necessarily have specific expertise in relation to care proceedings. In my view however, it is unacceptable that there appears to have been no understanding of, or reference to, the statutory basis upon which the draconian order sought, (resulting in the unilateral removal of these children from their mother) could have taken place.
110.The pleadings baldly assert that “on application to the Court the Defendant (ie the local authority) would have obtained at least respite care and if necessary by interim care orders in respect of each Claimant”. Such a statement fails to acknowledge that where, as here, a mother does not consent to the removal of her children from her care under an interim care order, the local authority must satisfy the court (pursuant to section 38(2) Children Act 1989) that there are reasonable grounds for believing that “circumstances with respect to the child are as mentioned in section 31(2)”.
111.Section 31(2) provides the ‘threshold criteria’ for state intervention in the care of a child:
“(2) A court may only make a care order or supervision order if it is satisfied-
(a) that the child concerned is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm; and
(b) that harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to-
(i) the care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him.”
112.On the facts of the case put before the court, it seems highly unlikely that it could be shown that there were reasonable grounds to conclude that the threshold criteria could be satisfied. Further, numerous Court of Appeal decisions have made it clear that satisfaction of the threshold criteria should not be equated with satisfaction of the case for the removal of a child from its parent. A care plan for the immediate removal of a child from its parent should only be approved by the court if the child’s safety demands immediate separation; see for example Re G (Interim Care Order)  2 FLR 955, CA. I note, for completeness, that there is no such order as a ‘respite care order,’ let alone as some sort of half way house to an interim care order.
113.In my judgment, the pleadings should have particularised the broad basis upon which it was said the threshold criteria was capable of being satisfied, and, having done so, why it was thereafter averred that the local authority would have been permitted to remove the children from the care of their mother absent her consent. Had that been done, it would have been apparent that not only was the proposal that these Claimant children should have been removed from their mother ‘utterly heartless’ and ‘utterly wrong,’ as characterised by Davis LJ, but legally unsustainable.
Davis LJ went further, and also threw in the word ‘legerdemain’ which is a particular favourite of mine.
116.In any event, I found the formulated claim, by reference to a duty of care asserted to arise from the availability of asserted remedies under the provisions of the Children Act 1989, most disconcerting. The true complaint in reality was about the failure of the housing authorities to re-house the entire family in the light of the activities of the neighbouring family. (Previous proceedings commenced by the claimants and their mother in 2012 against, among others, the Chief Constable of Police and PHP had, I note, not been pursued and were struck out in 2013.) That, as is now accepted, gave rise to no viable cause of action against the relevant housing authorities. To seek then to re-cast the claim for damages against the local authority by reference to an alleged duty to seek and obtain a care order under the Children Act 1989 seems to me little more than legalistic legerdemain, designed to overcome the insuperable obstacles to formulating a viable claim in attacking the housing authorities in the exercise, (or, rather, non-exercise) of their housing functions. The courts should not be prepared to entertain such a step.
117.It was never said that the mother was an unfit mother. She loved and cared for her (vulnerable) children. They loved and needed her. Nothing she did or did not do caused them any harm: it was the harassment of the neighbours which did. True she failed, in spite of all her efforts, to achieve the cessation of that harassment or relocation of her family. But that was not her fault. On the contrary, it was the various agencies which, rightly or wrongly, have been blamed. But why or how could seeking a care order with regard to the children be justified in such circumstances?
118.In the present case, it seems to me that seeking a care order from the Family Court, which potentially would split the family, would not simply have been utterly heartless: it seems to me that such a step would have been utterly wrong. In the circumstances of this case, there was no justification for potentially separating, without the mother’s consent, mother from children, children from mother by use of care proceedings. To countenance care proceedings in the Family Court in order to overcome (or provide a subsequent remedy for) the problems caused by the neighbours on the estate would be, I would have thought, tantamount to an abuse of the process of that court
The Court of Appeal held that there was nothing within this case, sad as it was, that met the very specific and narrow set of circumstances in which Person or Body A (the local authority) was legally responsible for the actions of a third party (the anti-social family living on the state). And thus the application was struck out.
Everyone can breathe now, we haven’t just had an entirely new basis for issuing care proceedings dumped on us. Thank goodness.
The Court of Appeal also suggest very strongly that D v East Berkshire is no longer good law and should not be followed, but as I don’t practice in tort, I’m not going to make the mistake of trying to tell anyone what significance that should have (or whether it just means that it isn’t authority for making a local authority responsible for the actions of a third party outside its control)