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Category Archives: section 20

Das reBoot – Court of Appeal find reverse gear (once again)

 

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.

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2017/26.html

 

London Borough of Hackney v Williams & Anor [2017] 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 [2013] EWHC 2190 (Fam) ,  and the Court of Appeal decisions giving judicial guidance on s20 cases  Re B (Looked after child) [2013] EWCA Civ 964 (sub nom Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council v Others); Re W (Children) [2014] EWCA Civ 1065; and Re N (Adoption: Jurisdiction) [2015] 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 [169]):

 

‘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 [171]:

 

‘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 [163]):

 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 [163]) 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?

 

 

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Human Rights claims and statutory charge – an answer? Sort of

In the words of Erik B and Rakim

 

It’s been a long time, I shouldn’ta left you, without a strong rhyme to step to

 

But now, to paraphrase the one-hit wonder gangster rapper from Leicester,  “Return of the Pack – oh my god, Return of the Pack, here I am, Return of the Pack, once again, Return of the Pack, Pump up the world”

 

Which is a more heavy rap-related intro than intended, but basically, now I’m back, to show you…

 

P v a Local Authority 2016

High Court y’all.  Keehan J in da House.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/2779.html

This one is actually a Keehan J shout out to the old skool, if by old skool, you mean (and I do),  the return of a case from March 2016

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2016/03/11/child-in-care-wanting-parents-to-have-no-information-or-involvement/

 

That was the case where the young person did not want his adoptive parents to know anything about the process of gender reassignment, and the LA went to Court to ascertain whether that was in conflict with their duties under the Children Act 1989 to consult with parents when they are looking after a child.

Unfortunately, this happened

 

Background

 

  • In September 2015 P moved to a local authority unit for semi-independent living. Although there were concerns about his mental well being and general welfare, P settled in to this accommodation. He was and is a vulnerable young person with a history of repeated episodes of self harm, taking overdoses and extremely poor mental health.
  • On 11 January 2016 an employee of the local authority disclosed personal information about P, including his forename and transgender status, to third parties who are friends of P’s adoptive parents. P was originally told that the address of the unit where he was living had also been disclosed: this later appears not to have been the case.
  • The impact of this wrongful disclosure on P was immediate and dramatic. He felt unsafe at the unit and left. He first stayed with his girlfriend and then at a number of residential units provided by the local authority. P’s mental health was very severely compromised: he made a number of suicide attempts and there were several episodes of self harm.
  • In more recent months P’s mental health has stabilised. I was very pleased that he was well enough to attend the last court hearing on 26 August 2016.
  • Although the local authority promptly told P of the disclosure of his personal information, I regret that it was slow in (a) giving P a full account of what had happened and (b) giving P a full and unreserved apology. In February the then Director of Children and Family Services wrote a letter of apology to P and offered to meet with him to answer any questions he may have had. P did not take up the offer of a meeting.
  • The member of staff who made the wrongful disclosure was suspended by the local authority and a formal investigation was undertaken pursuant to the council’s disciplinary policy. I do not know the outcome of that process.
  • Regrettably, and notwithstanding that P is a ward of this court, the local authority did not bring this breach of P’s privacy to the attention of this court. The matter was raised with the court by P’s lawyers.
  • The local authority, very sensible and rightly, decided to concede it had, by the inexcusable actions of one of its employees, breached P’s Article 8 rights to respect for his family and private life. They agreed to pay P damages in the sum of £4750. I am satisfied that in light of the very considerable distress suffered by P and the immediate adverse impact on his mental health, this appears to be an appropriate level of damages to be awarded to P.

 

That all seems straightforward. The LA messed up, and they agreed a sum of compensation to pay to P and P was content with that sum, and the Judge felt it was the right amount.

So why is this even a thing?

Well, it is because the Legal Aid Agency (having by the way refused to give P funding to make a claim for damages) wanted to take that £4750 and use it to repay the legal aid that P had had in the original wardship proceedings. This is called the Statutory Charge, and it comes up most often in divorce cases about money. The point there is that if you get legal aid (or ‘free’ legal representation paid by the taxpayer and you win money out of the case, you have to pay the legal aid back out of that money. ) That makes sense with divorce. It doesn’t make a lot of sense here.

It was P’s legal rights that were breached, and the £4,750 is compensation for that breach. Obviously he should get the money.

 

But no, the statutory charge bites on the compensation and P would get nothing.

That’s because of our dear old friend LASPO, the Statute that keeps on giving (if by giving you mean stealing pennies from the eyes of corpses)

 

  • Its current statutory basis is set out in s. 25 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (‘LASPO’) which provides:

 

“Charges on property in connection with civil legal services

(1) Where civil legal services are made available to an individual under this Part, the amounts described in subsection (2) are to constitute a first charge on—

(a) any property recovered or preserved by the individual in proceedings, or in any compromise or settlement of a dispute, in connection with which the services were provided (whether the property is recovered or preserved for the individual or another person), and

(b) any costs payable to the individual by another person in connection with such proceedings or such a dispute.

 

And the killer words her are “in connection with”  – basically the Legal Aid Agency position is that the statutory charge bites (and thus they can take the compensation and take all of the legal aid costs spent on other stuff and P just gets anything left over) if there’s a connection between the cases at all.

There’s one exception in the LASPO Act (none of which apply to compensation from Human Rights claims) and the Lord Chancellor has power to exempt the statutory charge in certain cases

 

 

  • The Lord Chancellor has authority to waive the statutory charge, in whole or in part, where she considers it equitable to do so and two conditions are met.

 

Those conditions are:

(a) the Director was satisfied, in determining that a legally aided party qualified for legal representation, that the proceedings had a significant wider public interest; and

(b) the Director in making the determination took into account that there were other claimants or potential claimants who might benefit from the proceedings:

see regulation 9 of the CLA(SC)R 2013.

 

  • The phrase ‘significant wider public interest’ is defined as being a case where the Director of the LAA is satisfied that the case is an appropriate case to realise real benefits to the public at large, other than those which normally flow from cases of the type in question, and benefits to an identifiable class of individuals, other than the individual to whom civil legal services may be provided or members of that individual’s family: see regulation 6 of the Civil Legal Aid (Merits Criteria) Regulation 2013 (the ‘LA(MC)R 2013’).
  • The LAA asserts that the two conditions set out in regulation 9 of the CLA(SC)R 2013 must be satisfied at the time the application for funding is made and the Director makes the determination that the application qualifies for funding. The purpose of the waiver is to allow legal aid to be granted for a single test case without disadvantaging the applicant should he or she fail to secure damages and/or all of their costs.

 

 

The Lord Chancellor and the Legal Aid Agency were both represented in these proceedings and were clear that Reg 9 had not been sought at the time the application for funding was made (of course it hadn’t, because the breach hadn’t happened at that point)  and so it couldn’t now be applied.

Their very reasonable solution was that P would get his damages, provided that his solicitors, silk and junior counsel agreed to waive all of their fees from the wardship case (i.e having represented P in a very complex and legally difficult case and got everything that he wanted and advanced the law in a way that will help others in similar circumstances, they should not get paid for any of it)

 

 

  • In taking a broad and pragmatic approach leading counsel for the local authority submits that the adverse consequence of the statutory charge, that P will receive not a penny in damages, is unfair and makes no sense. I have a very considerable degree of sympathy with those sentiments.
  • In this context I deprecate the stance taken by the LAA that the issue of P receiving any of the awarded HRA damages would be alleviated if his leading counsel, junior counsel and solicitor simply waived their professional fees for acting in this matter.

 

 

The Judge mooted the idea that if there was a break between the two cases (this is my solution so I’m interested in it)  i.e

  1. The solicitors and counsel deal with the wardship or care proceedings on legal aid

2. Separately and without charging for it, they write to the LA about human rights breach and ask for compensation

3. LA settles the HRA claim (and possibly pays the costs of step 2 into the bargain)

 

Then why is the money recovered as a result of step 2 ‘in connection with’ step 1?  And why should the LAA get their money back from step 1 if step 2 is nothing to do with it, and no legal aid money was spent in getting step 2 achieved?

I think this is a damn good point (immodestly, because I’ve been saying it for ages). The LAA unsurprisingly disagree

 

 

  • The principal supplementary submissions of the LAA may be distilled into the following 10 points:

 

(a) it was common ground between the parties at the hearing on 26 August 2016 that any damages recovered in relation to the breach of P’s Article 8 rights (the ‘HRA claim’) would be damages recovered in the wardship proceedings;(b) the creation of new proceedings avowedly for the purpose of avoiding the statutory charge would not be an appropriate use of the court’s powers. It would be wrong to seek to bring about the disapplication of the statutory charge by changing the previously contemplated approach to the scope of this judgment or disapplying certain rules of civil procedure.

(c) The issues raised by the court about the application of the statutory charge cannot be resolved in a factual vacuum.

(d) Even if P’s damages were awarded in freestanding proceedings which were not funded by the LAA, the statutory charge would still apply to those damages if they were recovered in “proceedings in connection with which the [civil legal] services were provided.” The language of ‘in connection with’ is obviously very wide. I was referred to the case of Cassidy v. Stephenson [2009] EWHC 1562 (QB) where Holman J. held that money recovered from the settlement of professional negligence proceedings brought as a result of a failed clinical negligence (which was funded) was not property recovered in a dispute “in connection with which” the legal services for the clinical negligence claims were provided.

(e) The propositions set out in paragraphs 7 to 10 of the email of 20 October 2016 are correct, save that the LAA is not privy to the full background to this case (eg the local authority’s response to P’s letter before action).

(f) The HRA claim cannot be said to be ‘wholly unconnected’ to the subject matter of the wardship proceedings. The LAA asserts that:

“As the LAA understands the position, the Court considered P’s circumstances and the extent to which information about him and his whereabouts should be disclosed in the inherent jurisdiction proceedings. The HRA Claim arose, as the LAA understands it, as a result of conduct by the LCC that was not consistent with the way in which that issue was resolved, with the Court’s assistance, in these proceedings. It was therefore reliant on matters determined in RA’s favour in the wardship proceedings, for which funding for civil legal services was provided.

Civil legal services were provided for the wardship proceedings, in which RA was made a ward of the Court, and restrictions were imposed on disclosure of information in relation to RA. It was the fact that LCC acted contrary to the resolved position that has given rise to the HRA Claim. The LAA funded the wardship proceedings, including for a declaration that there had been a breach of the injunction imposed by the Court. “

(g) It would be artificial to say than any recovery of damages was not made in the wardship proceedings.

(h) Even if the award of damages was made or approved outwith the wardship proceedings, the damages were still recovered in proceedings in connection with which “legal services were provided” (i.e. the wardship proceedings). The LAA relies on the assertion by P’s counsel that the authorities state that HRA claims should be brought within wardship proceedings viz. Re L(Care Proceedings: Human Rights Claims) [2003] 2 FLR 160.

(i) The answer to the question posed in paragraph 15 of the email of 20 October 2016 is “yes” there are reasons why the court should not permit the issue of a freestanding HRA claim. Such a device would be inappropriate and would not result in the disapplication of the statutory charge because, as asserted above, the damages would be recovered in (unfunded) proceedings which were “in connection with” the (funded) wardship proceedings.

 

 

The Judge decided otherwise and ruled that in this case steps 1 and 2 were not ‘connected with’ each other and the statutory charge did not arise on the compensation payable to P. Hooray!

 

 

 

  • It is appropriate for me to deal with each of those points in turn. First, the court is neither bound nor fettered in its determination of the legal issues or the factual matrix of a case by the submission of counsel. In any event counsel were afforded the opportunity to agree or disagree with the alternative analysis proposed by the court and to make submissions. P and the local authority have decided to agree with my propositions and questions. The LAA have had a full opportunity to respond and I can discern no procedural or substantive unfairness in the course I have adopted.
  • Second, to characterise the alternative analysis the court has suggested is ‘avowedly for the purpose of avoiding the statutory charge’ is quite wrong. Rather my objective is to secure, if at all possible, by any legitimate and lawful route P’s receipt of the damages he maybe awarded for the breach of his Article 8 Rights by an organ of the state.
  • Third the factual matrix of this case should be well known to all parties including the LAA. The same is comprehensively set out in the parties’ written submissions and in a detailed chronology prepared on behalf of P. I do not accept the court is considering the legal issues in this case in a factual vacuum.
  • Fourth, with reference to paragraph 64(d) above, I accept the phrase “in connection with which the [civil legal] services were provided” can be given a very wide interpretation. I was not referred to any authority to support a submission that I must give it a very wide interpretation.
  • Fifth, with reference to paragraph 64(e) above, I do not understand the submission that the “LAA is not privy to the full background to this case.” For the purposes of this judgment I have not taken account of nor have I been furnished with material not available to all counsel, save perhaps for one matter which I refer to in the next paragraph.
  • Sixth, with reference to paragraphs 64(f) and (g) above, the LAA appears to have proceeded and proceeds on the basis of a fundamental misunderstanding of the order I made in August 2015: see paragraph 46 above. I did not make an injunction or other order prohibiting the local authority from disclosing personal or private details about P to other persons, save against the local authority disclosing information to P’s adoptive parents: see paragraph 8 above. I made a declaratory order that the local authority was relieved of its statutory duty to give information about P to or to consult with P’s adoptive parents about P or his welfare. The LAA has proceeded and proceeds on the following assumptions:

 

(a) that I made an injunctive order against the local authority;(b) that the employee of the local authority breached the terms of that injunction;

(c) and that P’s claim against the local authority was based on a breach of that injunction.

None of the foregoing assumptions are factually correct. The LAA’s mistake does explain the funding decision of 8 February 2016, set out at paragraph 38 above, to permit P to bring a claim for a declaration for breach of an injunction.

 

  • P’s claim is and was always based upon his Art. 8 Convention right to respect for his private and family life. The claim had nothing to do with the declaratory relief granted to P in the wardship proceedings. This court was not notified of that alleged breach (now admitted) by an employee of the local authority which it should have been because P is a ward of this court and because of the adverse consequences of the wrongful disclosure on P. Furthermore the wrongful disclosure, insofar as it is relevant, was made to third parties and not to P’s adoptive parents. The local authority asserts that the third parties did not, in fact, pass on the disclosed information to P’s adoptive parents.
  • Seventh, with reference to paragraphs 64(h) and (i) above, in light of the correct factual matrix set out above I am not satisfied that the (unfunded) HRA claim in which damages are sought could be said to be “recovered in proceedings in connection with which legal services were provided” (i.e. the funded wardship proceedings). I go further, I am wholly satisfied that the damages resulting from the HRA claim are not “recovered in proceedings in connection with which legal services were provided”. There is no legal or factual connection between the wardship proceedings and P’s HRA claim.
  • The mere fact that P’s counsel in submission referred to the case of Re L(Care Proceedings: Human Rights Claims) [2003] 2 FLR 160 which advises that HRA claims may or should be made in existing proceedings, does not require this court to conclude that P must or may only make a HRA claim in ongoing wardship proceedings. No claim form was issued. The HRA claim and the quantum of damages were settled before a claim was issued. As referred to in paragraphs 58 and 59 above, rr. 21.10 and 8 of the CPR set out the appropriate procedure when a settlement is reached concerning a child or young person prior to the issue of proceedings.
  • I can discern no legal impediment or other reason why I should not permit P by his solicitor to issue a claim form as required by r. 8.2 of the CPR and upon that basis, in due course, proceed to approve the agreed award of damages to P in respect of his HRA claim in those proceedings. The approval of damages can be submitted by email and be dealt on the papers without the need for a hearing. I am confident that the local authority would agree to pay the costs of that process incurred by P’s legal team.

 

Conclusions

 

  • I am bound to find that the Lord Chancellor, by the director of the LAA, has no discretion or power to waive the statutory charge, if applicable, in this case. The preconditions set out in regulation 9 of the CLA(SC)R 2013 must be satisfied at the time the determination of funding is made and a decision to waive the statutory charge must be made at the same time. That did not happen in this case and thus the preconditions are not satisfied.
  • I do not understand why the CLA(SC)R 2013 regulations placed that limitation on the time when a decision whether to waive the statutory charge must be made. I am not aware of any public interest or policy reasons for the same. It is regrettable that the discretion to waive the statutory charge is so fettered.
  • The manner in which the LAA has made determinations on public funding in these proceedings is extremely unfortunate. In some aspects the decisions are plainly wrong and/or unreasonable and in others the reasoning of the LAA is difficult to understand, if not incomprehensible.
  • In my view it would be extremely regrettable if P were to be denied the benefit of the damages awarded to him as a result of the considerable emotional distress and harm to his mental well being he has suffered as a result of the wrongful conduct of an organ of the state.
  • In light of the fact, however, that the LAA refused to fund a HRA claim for damages it appears me that the damages to be awarded to P under the Part 8 procedure were recovered in a claim that did not have the benefit of a public funding certificate. Further I am wholly satisfied that any damages awarded to P in Part 8 proceedings were not recovered “in proceedings in connection with which [civil legal] services were provided.” Accordingly, however erroneous or muddled the LAA’s decision making was on this issue, in my view, for the reasons I have given above the statutory charge is not and cannot be applicable to P’s award of damages.

 

 

Is this the end of it? Not really. Whilst the Judge here paints a route-map for others to follow, there are two major differences from other HRA cases notably the s20 damages cases.

 

  1. The HRA breach happened AFTER the Court hearing and not really in connection with the Court hearing at all. P’s rights would have been breached by what the rogue member of staff did, whether or not there had been a Court hearing. (The Court hearing made it sharper and more vivid and allowed P to easily tap into legal advice from his legal team whom he already knew, but the breach was a breach regardless. It was  a breach of his article 8 rights, NOT as the LAA mistakenly thought a breach of a Court injunction)
  2. The LAA had been asked to fund a damages claim and had refused. That is a material factor in the Judge being able to rule that there was no connection between the two cases.

 

(On the plus side for children and parents, this case probably makes it more likely that the LAA will STOP refusing to fund such damages cases, since if they do, they leave the door open to not being able to recover their original costs out of any winnings, but that in turn means that they will argue that this case doesn’t have broader application)

 

I suspect this is an issue that only the Court of Appeal or Parliament can resolve. It simply can’t be right that where a child or parent has their human rights breached by the State and compensation is paid that they will not get a penny of it. Equally it can’t be right that where the HRA claim is accepted and settled swiftly, that the LA get hit with costs of care proceedings which would be massively more than the legal costs of dealing with the HRA claim itself (and that is a collision course with Supreme Court decisions in Re S and Re T about where costs orders can be made in care proceedings)

Not for the first or last time, the answer is that LASPO is badly drafted and poorly constructed and unfair to real people, and it needs to be reworked.

 

Absconding and secure accommodation

This Court of Appeal decision hasn’t come up on Bailii yet, and I’m grateful to Graham Cole from Luton’s LA legal team for alerting me to it.

 

RE W (A CHILD) (2016)

 

[2016] EWCA Civ 804

 

A lawtel link is here, but that’s only good if you have access codes to it. Will keep an eye out for it on Bailii.

 

https://www.lawtel.com/MyLawtel/Documents/AC0151488

 

It relates to an application for a Secure Accommodation Order for a girl who was 17 years and 8 months old.  There’s a common misconception that you can’t have a Secure Accommodation Order on a child over 17  (in fact, what the Secure Accommodation Regs prohibit is secure accommodation for a child accommodated under s20 (5) of the Children Act 1989.

 

Secure Accommodation Regulations 1991

Children to whom section 25 of the Act shall not apply

5. –

(1) Section 25 of the Act shall not apply to a child who is detained under any provision of the Mental Health Act 1983(1) or in respect of whom an order has been made under section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933(2) (punishment of certain grave crimes).

(2) Section 25 of the Act shall not apply to a child–

(a)to whom section 20(5) of the Act (accommodation of persons over 16 but under 21) applies and who is being accommodated under that section,

 

So a 17 year old accommodated because of a Care Order, or under s20(3) is okay.

However, when you look at the definitions of s20(3) and s20(5) side by side

 

(3)Every local authority shall provide accommodation for any child in need within their area who has reached the age of sixteen and whose welfare the authority consider is likely to be seriously prejudiced if they do not provide him with accommodation.

 

and

(5)A local authority may provide accommodation for any person who has reached the age of sixteen but is under twenty-one in any community home which takes children who have reached the age of sixteen if they consider that to do so would safeguard or promote his welfare.

 

Then you can see that determining which one was used for any given young person is tricky, as there’s a waffer-thin mint between them, AND it all hinges on what was in the LA mind at the time of accommodation and whether they correctly alloted the young person to the (reasonable and proportionate) type of accommodation.   IF the accommodation is to stop their welfare being seriously prejudiced, then they can securely accommodate. If the accommodation was just to safeguard or promote welfare, they can’t.

 

Initially, I thought “Well, any s20 where the concerns are sufficient to want to go for secure, will trigger s20(3)”  but remember, one is looking at the reason for the provision of accommodation in the first place, not necessarily immediately before the secure accommodation application. If a young person leaves home and is accommodated under s20(5)  to prevent them having to sofa surf or be homeless, then when there’s a later deterioration in behaviour that triggers the secure criteria, the option wouldn’t be open to the LA.   Can the LA discharge the s20(5) and immediately convert it to s20(3) ?  That sounds a bit iffy to me.  (My legal summary of ‘a bit iffy’ is not necessarily the way I would express it in the Court of Appeal. Let us instead say “has the hallmarks of an abuse of process)

 

Be grateful I went for THIS image rather than the many others available

Be grateful I went for THIS image rather than the many others available

 

What has always been a bit dubious/uncertain, if you don’t have a Care Order on the 17 year old, is the power of the LA to accommodate a young person against their will, and specifically by then locking them up, if accommodated under s20(3) and a Secure Accommodation Order is obtained.

The statute doesn’t say anything about a young person’s capacity to discharge THEMSELVES from s20 accommodation. It says specifically that a parent has the right to discharge them by objecting or removing, and it says specifically that post 16 a parent can’t do that if the young person wants to remain in s20. But it says nothing about a young person saying “I don’t want to be here, I’m checking out.”

Well, maybe you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave….

 

W’s lawyers were saying that W DID NOT consent to being accommodated under s20(3), and thus could not be accommodated, and if she wasn’t accommodated, she couldn’t be SECURELY ACCOMMODATED.

The LA lawyers said, the statute doesn’t say that W has to consent.   (It doesn’t say that the parents have to consent either, but that particular ship has sailed with the caselaw on s20 over the last year)

The Court of Appeal on this point said  (and curse it not being on Bailii, because I’m having to TYPE this rather than cut and paste it as normal)

 

“A due regard to the wishes and feelings of a competent child so far as consistent with his or her welfare may dissuade a Local Authority from applying for a secure accommodation order. As a child approaches its majority, the factors to be weighed in the balance will undoubtedly acknowledge its looming legal independence. That said, we are satisfied that the subject child’s consent is not a pre-requisite of the making of a secure accommodation order”

They also indicate that for secure based on s20(3), the parents have to be consenting to the s20 accommodation  (the s20(11) provision that a 16 year old can block parents removing them from s20 if they want to stay there doesn’t apply, because it is not removal but entry that is up for debate)

The Court of Appeal also had to look at whether the secure accommodation criteria were met, and there’s a novel argument there.  W’s lawyers argued that W was not ‘absconding’ from placements. She was absenting herself and then returning, whereas absconding carries the connotation of ‘escape’  and this was developed into ‘escape’ has a connotation of an intent to be absent indefinitely.

 

Now, that’s very very important. An awful lot of the ‘absconding’ that you see in application for Secure Accommodation Orders is a young person going missing for a few days and coming back of their own free will – and them putting themselves in danger in the interim. You do see some absconding which fits the classic ‘escape with intent to avoid recapture’ where the child is missing for weeks or even months and generally gets picked up by the police not entirely voluntarily, but those are rarer.   The very modern post Rochdale phenomenon of Child Sexual Exploitation leading to secure is very much a young girl not returning to placement after school and staying away for a few days (with abusive and exploitative men) and then returning home.  This case is raising the important issue of whether that actually IS absconding.  If it ISN’T, then the first of the two possible limbs to satisfy the Secure Criteria is not made out.

 

25 Use of accomodation for restricting liberty.

(1)Subject to the following provisions of this section, a child who is being looked after by a local authority may not be placed, and, if placed, may not be kept, in accommodation provided for the purpose of restricting liberty (“secure accommodation”) unless it appears—

(a)that—

(i)he has a history of absconding and is likely to abscond from any other description of accommodation; and

(ii)if he absconds, he is likely to suffer significant harm; or

(b)that if he is kept in any other description of accommodation he is likely to injure himself or other persons.

 

So if the Court of Appeal rule that ‘absconding’ for s25 means some intent to escape with intent to stay away, then ground (a) can’t be made out for a lot of young people in Secure, because although they are AWOL a lot, and missing a lot, they are coming back and intended to, rather than had the intent to ‘escape’.   Ground (b) might still apply, but most Secures are dealt with on ground (a).

 

This could be very big.

What did the Court of Appeal decide?

 

21. Miss Judd QC’s arguments in relation to the Judge’s definition of ‘absconding’ arose in the fact-specific circumstances of the case and did not persuade us that it was necessary to define the term beyond its everyday meaning.

 

[That noise you just heard was 500 LA lawyers breathing out. Don’t jump the gun – the Court of Appeal might SAY that they don’t think it’s necessary, but they are probably still about to do it anyway]

 

Munby J (as he then was)

 

[500 LA lawyers just said ‘oh god, no’]

 

in Re G (Secure Accommodation Order) 2001 FLR 884 at 895 relied on the definition of ‘abscond’ found in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. This accords with the usual application of the term to connote the element of ‘escape’ from an imposed regime.  Mr Tyler QC’s reliance on the wider definition in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary was perhaps borne of the need to support his argument that Keehan J’s approach to the issue was correct.  Although trite to say, the facts will speak for themselves.  As it is, we are satisfied, as we indicate below, that the Judge wrongly categorised W’s absences from the Unit in which she had been placed since January 2016 as absconding.

 

This particular girl had NOT absconded.

 

We don’t have Keehan J’s judgment to look at the facts, but the Court of Appeal say at para 7 that she has from a variety of placements and units, absented herself at all hours to pursue her own ends and has not followed the rules in any of the placements, when absent she has been with risky adult males and come back with sums of money. It looks, therefore like the sort of CSE case I discussed earlier.  Lots of short-lived absences without leave, which the Court of Appeal concluded did not amount to absconding.

Eep.

22 . In determining that W had absconded, Keehan J invoked the facts that W had ‘disengaged’ with the Unit, returning “not just a few hours later but well into the following day”.  I do not consider that this meant that W was ‘absconding’ from the Unit, in terms of  escaping indefinitely from an imposed regime, as opposed to deliberately absenting herself for a limited period, knowingly and disdainfully in breach of the night-time curfews imposed.

 

The Court of Appeal went on to say that in W’s case, they considered that the second criteria (b) was made out in any event and thus a Secure Accommodation Order could legitimately be made.

 

But the first criteria is now in tatters for a lot of cases  –  the Court of Appeal are looking for evidence that the young person ‘escaped indefinitely from an imposed regime’   rather than ‘deliberately absenting themselves for  limited period in breach of rules.  Obviously, the shorter the period of absence the harder it will be to prove that the young person ‘escaped indefinitely’, particularly if they return of their own volition.  Ground (b) will be the criteria to inspect chronologies for in the future – the absconding ground just became very tough to prove in 80% of cases.

 

 

If you enjoyed this piece, or like the blog generally – my novel which is set in a Children’s Secure Accommodation centre, is available to pre-order and should be out around Christmas time.  I’d LOVE your support, which you can provide by pre-ordering here

 

https://unbound.com/books/in-secure

 

Inordinate delay in issuing proceedings (£45K damages)

 

This is a Circuit Judge decision made in my local Court (it is not a case that I or any of my colleagues are involved in, so I can write about it) so I will try to avoid much comment and stick to the reported facts.

 

Re X, Y and Z  (Damages: Inordinate Delay in issuing proceedings) 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2016/B44.html

Three children had been s20 accommodated from January 2013 until July 2015 when an Interim Care Order was made. The Court determined that the s20 had been lawfully entered into and was valid, but of course on the authorities, a valid s20 does not prevent a human rights breach based on delay.  Whilst the mother in this case had never formally withdrawn her consent or lodged an objection, she had been asking for more contact with the children and saying from time to time that she would like them to come home.

 

  1. The mother clearly frequently stated that she would wish to care for the children and certainly to see them :
  2. i) 8.2.13 Letter from Z seeking to see the children.

ii) 1.3.13 Z asks for contact and to have the children back in her first meeting with a social worker

iii) 3.4.13 Z seeks fortnightly contact in a telephone call.

iv) 5.9.13 LAC review – stated that Z would like to be able to care for the children.

v) 14.1.14 Report for LAC review notes that Z would like to see the children and that she sometimes states she wants to care for the children and sometimes that she just wants to have contact with them.

vi) 8.4.14 Legal Planning Meeting Solicitor for Z stated that she had requested both children be returned to her care as soon as possible…if not returned to her care, would like increased contact.

vii) 26.11.14 LAC Review Z would like to be able to care for the children.

 

 

The Judge ruled that the children’s article 6 and  8 rights were breached in the following ways

 

  1. It follows from all that is set out above that I make the following declarations:
  2. i) West Sussex County Council acted unlawfully and in violation of the Convention Rights of X, Y and Z as follows:

a) Purported to exercise parental responsibility for X and Y for a period of almost two and a half years when they did not hold parental responsibility for the children.

b) Failed to promote contact between the children ,X and Y and their mother Z.

c) Failed to issue care proceedings for almost two and a half years causing the children to be without access to independent representation, failing to carry out adequate assessments and allowing the children’s permanence plan to drift.

d) The Independent Reviewing Officer failed to challenge the conduct of the Local Authority sufficiently robustly.

The judgment contains analysis of the relevant authorities on s20 breaches, s20 drift, human rights claims and calculating quantum.

The Judge concluded that each of the  children should receive the sum of £20,000 in damages  (*initially, with the case being called X, Y and Z, I’d assumed three children and hence £60k, but I am told two children. Still £45k is a lot of money)

 

  1. The factors to be considered for the children are substantially different to those for the mother and consequently must be assessed separately. The main factors in relation to quantum are :
  2. i) A failure to assess their needs for an inordinate period of time – over two years before any report was obtained;

ii) The fact that they were denied access to any independent legal representation for two and a half years – of particular importance when they had no relatives in the country who would be able to care for them and when they had been the subject of apparent abuse during their time in Jamaica;

iii) Little promotion of contact with their mother even though X indicated in February 2013 that he would like to go back to her – there was no contact for the next twelve months;

iv) No comprehensive assessment of their needs although it was indicated as early as March 2013 that such an assessment was required;

v) Frequent changes in placements without any input from anyone with parental responsibility

vi) Placement with W, the previous foster carer, without any such assessment or understanding of any abuse they had suffered in Jamaica;

vii) The fact that the children are now in separate long term foster placements with no contact with each other or any other relative and X is not in a culturally appropriate placement;

  1. It is apparent that the end result for these children is not a good one. It is not possible now to say that the outcome would have been any different if proceedings had been issued in early to mid-2013 which should have occurred. However, it is difficult to see how the outcome would have been much worse and the loss of a chance of a better conclusion must be reflected in any award that is made.
  2. This case appears to be at the upper end of the bracket that has been awarded in similar cases. The only aggravating feature which is not present in this case, which is present in the majority of other such cases, is the fact that I have found that the s.20 agreement is a valid one. I am not going to set out all of the possible comparators as they appear in the table in the Medway case but I would simply state that this case involves the longest period as well as a poor outcome which may not have been the case without the breaches. As a result due to all of the issues which have been highlighted I am satisfied that the children should be awarded the sum of £20,000 each for all of the breaches of their Article 6 and 8 rights.

 

 

In relation to the mother

 

The Mother’s Award

  1. The mother is in a different position as she did have the benefit of legal advice from June 2013 onwards and as a result would have been able to withdraw her consent at any time thereafter. This must be of significance in considering damages as the inordinate delay in this case is the most troubling aspect and that delay could have been stopped at any time by the simple act of instructing her solicitor to withdraw her consent.
  2. It is argued on behalf of the Local Authority that this feature is of such significance that it should mean that the mother would receive ‘just satisfaction’ by way of a declaration alone. However that ignores the other crucial factors in her case which include :
  3. i) The frequent requests for contact to her children which were simply ignored by West Sussex although there was no legal basis to do so;

ii) If proceedings had been issued the Local Authority would have been obliged pursuant to s.34 Children Act 1989 to promote such contact;

iii) The failure to properly assess the mother due to the fact that she had been fully assessed in the previous proceedings some five years earlier.

  1. It seems unlikely that the children would have been placed with their mother if the proceedings would have been commenced in a timeous fashion and as such there does not need to be any award for the loss of that chance. However, the same cannot be said in relation to contact as that may have been very different if addressed much earlier. The children are now stating that they will not see their mother but that was not the position when they first arrived at Gatwick in January 2013. This loss is even more significant now that each child has no contact whatsoever with any member of their family.
  2. In these circumstance the appropriate level of damages for the mother must be far lower than for the children and I assess the figure of £5,000 as the correct amount to compensate her for her Article 6 and (more significantly) Article 8 rights.

 

 

Looking at the chronology given in the judgment,  there was involvement with lawyers as early as 24th June 2013, which was still 2 years before proceedings were issued.

 

The Judge was very critical of the  Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO), who would have been holding Looked After Child Reviews at regular intervals during the 2 1/2 years of s20. He found that they, too, had been responsible for breaches of both the mother and the children’s human rights.

 

  1. The Independent Reviewing Officer failed to challenge the conduct of West Sussex and did not promote care proceedings. The functions of the IRO are set out within s.25 Children Act 1989 and they include monitoring the performance of the Local Authority of their functions in relation to the child’s case. In the case of A and S v Lancashire CC [2012] EWHC 1689 at para 168 it was submitted (and Jackson J did not demur) that the task of the IRO was to “monitor, persuade, cajole, encourage and criticise fellow professionals in the interest of the child”. Their roles are more fully set out within the “IRO Handbook” which provides the relevant statutory guidance. In the Lancashire Case it was found that the failures of the IRO amounted to a breach of the children’s rights.
  2. The actions of the IRO in this case are fully set out within the statement of Children’s Safeguarding Manager and which is referred to above, which concludes with a list of ‘Strengths’ and ‘Areas for Development’ and the latter included :
  3. i) “the Review minutes do not consistently contain sufficient specific evidence of IRO challenge, especially on issues in relation to progress towards permanence”

ii) “the decision specific to the permanence plan was not specific enough and did not contain any target dates”

iii) “would have expected more explicit detail in relation to the permanence plan of long term fostering and the need to seek legal advice”

  1. It does not seem to me that this adequately highlights the deficiencies of the IROs (there were two) in this case. There does not appear to be any note whatsoever of the IRO cajoling the Local Authority on timescales and this can be highlighted by two simple issues :
  2. i) There is a bald statement in the second review held in May 2013 that an SGO assessment is about to commence in relation to the paternal aunt. This is repeated in the fourth review in January 2014 which records that “an SGO assessment will be undertaken at the appropriate time”. It is noted at the fifth review in July 2014 that the paternal aunt still wished to have the children living with her under SGOs but the assessment is still not there some fourteen months after it was first raised. This is a simply appalling delay and does not seem to be criticised by the IRO – if there is not going to be criticism in such cases then one has to ask when would it ever occur?

ii) The IRO was aware in May 2013 that the mother wanted contact to the children but no decisions were made on this crucial point at the time. In September 2013 it was noted that indirect contact had happened and the next stage would be to consider re-introducing direct contact yet by the fourth review it is simply noted that they were “working towards direct contact”! The first face to face contact did not take place until February 2014, a full 13 months after the children had arrived in the UK with the mother saying that she wanted to see the children throughout and the eldest child, X, having said he would like to see his mother in February 2013. It is entirely possible that the contact would not have been successful (as has in fact occurred) but it must be the duty of the IRO to challenge this astonishing delay in attempting such contact in circumstances when the children had no involvement with any member of their birth family.

  1. The lack of urgency in the case is breath-taking and it is simply wrong to point out the failures of the IROs to force the issues as an “Area for Development”. It was a total failure to “monitor, persuade, cajole, encourage and criticise fellow professionals in the interest of the child” as they should have been doing. This was clearly a case that should have come before the courts years before it actually did yet the IRO did not appear to put any pressure upon the Local Authority to ensure that this occurred. There is power within s.25B(3) Children Act 1989 for an IRO to refer the case to CAFCASS if it is considered it was appropriate to do so. It is difficult to understand why such action should not have been carried out in this case in order to ensure that the welfare needs of these children were fully protected.
  2. It follows that the failures of the IRO were sufficient in this case to amount to a breach of the children’s and the mother’s rights to family life and a fair trial.

 

 

If I were a betting man, and I am, I would expect an increase in care proceedings issued when the September set of CAFCASS stats come out.  And the volume of care proceedings issued is already at an all-time high.

Section 20 – keys to open the door, keys to hold the door

 

This has been nibbling at me for a while, and there isn’t a clear answer, so I wanted to highlight the question.

 

Under section 20, it is really clear that if either parent with Parental Responsibility OBJECTS to the section 20 then it can’t happen  – at least, not if they are able to provide accommodation for the child or arrange for it to be provided.

[Often that last bit is forgotten about. Of course, they also have the s20(8) power to simply remove the child, but I’m not sure what happens next if they’ve removed the child from s20 but aren’t actually offering the child accommodation themselves or arranging for it elsewhere. Do they just stand on the street with the child?  Note that the objection in s20(7) doesn’t say that the accommodation must be ‘suitable’ or ‘appropriate’ or anything like that. If the LA think that it isn’t, their only remedy is care proceedings, not to say – ‘we’re going to continue s20 because your house is currently underwater/full of broken glass/has a staircase designed by Escher/ is occupied by rabid wolves and is thus not safe for a child’ ]

 

s20 (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.

(8)Any person who has parental responsibility for a child may at any time remove the child from accommodation provided by or on behalf of the local authority under this section.

 

Now, under the Act itself, a parent giving CONSENT to s20 is not actually a thing. It is just an absence of that objection. But under the developing case-law, particularly the obiter parts of Re N from the Court of Appeal, the President is very clear that s20 should be done by consent, and with that consent in writing.

 

Now, my question is (and this does actually happen) – where a mother (say) wants some respite care and consents to s20, does the LA need the CONSENT of the father who is indicating that he won’t give it, because he doesn’t want the children to come into care?  On the wording of the Act, UNLESS father is offering a home to the children himself, or arranging other accommodation for him, he can’t actually object to the s20.

But under the case-law, which suggests that you need more than an absence of objection, you need active consent, can he block mother’s respite without offering an alternative, by simply refusing to consent?

Can he spite mum’s respite?

[You can swap mum and dad over, if gender bias is troubling you here – it can and does work the other way too]

Now, if the child is disabled, then the respite is not provided under s20, it is provided as specifically respite care under different legislation and the non-resident parent CAN’T block it. But with a child who is not disabled, the only way the child can have respite care is through s20.

The Act allows a single parent to ask for it, as long as the other parent doesn’t say “I object, the child can stay with me / Auntie Beryl”

And there’s also

section 2 (7)Where more than one person has parental responsibility for a child, each of them may act alone and without the other (or others) in meeting that responsibility; but nothing in this Part shall be taken to affect the operation of any enactment which requires the consent of more than one person in a matter affecting the child.

 

Which makes it clear that each person with parental responsibility has a KEY. Either of them can use that KEY to open the lock to any door for an issue where parental consent is required. It is only where an ACT specifically says, this particular door needs TWO KEYS that the consent of both is required.   [Passports, for example. Adoption, for another.]

So on the Act, I don’t think that a non-resident parent can block respite care UNLESS they are offering to care for the child themselves or to arrange for Auntie Beryl to do it.  That’s when s20(7) kicks in.

 

But from the case-law, there’s a strong suggestion that the consent of everyone with PR is needed before s20 can take place, which does allow a parent to block respite care without coming up with any alternative suggestion.

The Act suggests that one parent can OPEN the door to s20 respite care with one key, their own PR  (and the door can only be held shut if the other parent offers an alternative home for the child and objects under s20)

The case law suggests that one parent can HOLD THE DOOR shut, even though they aren’t able or willing to care for the child themselves or to help out.

Given that Re N is obiter, and has been successfully appealed (though not on the s20 point), my own view is that the Act prevails, particularly because s2(7) says “Enactment” meaning that it is only statute that can insist that any particular door is a two key door. Case-law can’t insist that a particular door is a two key door, only an Act of Parliament can. And s20 is not specified as a two key door.

I don’t think then, that a non-resident parent can HOLD THE DOOR shut, though I can’t be absolutely certain.

 

Anyway, much of the imagery in this case was just leading up to this picture.

 

Terrible grit in my eye for some reason. Not actually crying. Just grit. Honest.

Terrible grit in my eye for some reason. Not actually crying. Just grit. Honest.

 

Court of Appeal – section 20 abuse

 

There have been several reported cases about Local Authorities misusing section 20 now, to obtain “voluntary accommodation” of children in foster care where the ‘voluntary’ element doesn’t seem all that voluntary, and therefore it was only a matter of time before the Court of Appeal fell upon such a case and made an example of it.

 

Here it is:-

 

Re N (Children: Adoption : Jurisdiction) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/1112.html

 

As you can see from the title, it is also a case about adoption and the jurisdiction to make adoption orders about children who are born to foreign parents or who live overseas by the time the order is made.  I would really want more time to ponder those parts of the judgment before writing it up.

 

This particular sentence from Aitkens LJ is probably worthy of a piece on its own – raising the issue of ‘limping adoption orders’

 

There is one further comment I wish to make. Both the President and Black LJ have emphasised that when an English court is considering making a placement order or adoption order in respect of a foreign national child, it must consider, as part of the “welfare” exercise under section 1(4) of the 2002 Act, the possibility of the result being a “limping” adoption order. By that they mean an adoption order which, although fully effective in this country, might be ineffective in other countries that the child and his adopters may wish or need to visit. There is a danger that natural parent(s) (or perhaps other parties) who oppose the adoption, will attempt to turn this factor into a major forensic battle by engaging foreign lawyers to give opinions on the effectiveness (or lack of it) of an English adoption order in other countries, in particular the state of the nationality of the natural parent(s). Those legal opinions might then be challenged and there is the danger of that issue becoming expensive and time consuming “satellite litigation”. I hope that this can be avoided by a robust application of the Family Procedure Rules relating to expert opinions.

 

So, focussing just on the section 20 issues  (If you want the background to what section 20 is, what drift is and why it is a problem, I’ll point you towards my most recent piece on it  https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/10/21/fast-and-the-furious-tunbridge-wells-drift/)

 

This is what the Court of Appeal had to say  (and this is one of those judgments that the President has cascaded down – which is a posh way of saying “sent by email to all Courts saying that they must read it and follow it”)

 

  1. Other matters: section 20 of the 1989 Act
  2. The first relates to the use by the local authority – in my judgment the misuse by the local authority – of the procedure under section 20 of the 1989 Act. As we have seen, the children were placed in accordance with section 20 in May 2013, yet it was not until January 2014, over eight months later, that the local authority eventually issued care proceedings. Section 20 may, in an appropriate case, have a proper role to play as a short-term measure pending the commencement of care proceedings, but the use of section 20 as a prelude to care proceedings for a period as long as here is wholly unacceptable. It is, in my judgment, and I use the phrase advisedly and deliberately, a misuse by the local authority of its statutory powers.
  3. As I said in Re A (A Child), Darlington Borough Council v M [2015] EWFC 11, para 100:

    “There is, I fear, far too much misuse and abuse of section 20 and this can no longer be tolerated.”

    I drew attention there, and I draw attention again, to the extremely critical comments of the Court of Appeal in Re W (Children) [2014] EWCA Civ 1065, as also to the decision of Keehan J in Northamptonshire County Council v AS and Ors [2015] EWHC 199 (Fam). As Keehan J pointed out in the latter case (para 37), the accommodation of a child under a section 20 agreement deprives the child of the benefit of having an independent children’s guardian to represent and safeguard his interests and deprives the court of the ability to control the planning for the child and prevent or reduce unnecessary and avoidable delay. In that case the local authority ended up having to pay substantial damages.

  4. Then there was the decision of Cobb J in Newcastle City Council v WM and ors [2015] EWFC 42. He described the local authority (paras 46, 49) as having acted unlawfully and in dereliction of its duty. We had occasion to return to the problem very recently in Re CB (A Child) [2015] EWCA Civ 888, para 86, a case involving the London Borough of Merton. Even more recent is the searing judgment of Sir Robert Francis QC, sitting as a Deputy High Court Judge in the Queen’s Bench Division in Williams and anor v London Borough of Hackney [2015] EWHC 2629 (QB), another case in which the local authority had to pay damages.
  5. Moreover, there has in recent months been a litany of judgments in which experienced judges of the Family Court have had occasion to condemn local authorities, often in necessarily strong, on occasions withering, language, for misuse, and in some cases plain abuse, of section 20: see, for example, Re P (A Child: Use of S.20 CA 1989) [2014] EWFC 775, a case involving the London Borough of Redbridge, Re N (Children) [2015] EWFC 37, a case involving South Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council, Medway Council v A and ors (Learning Disability: Foster Placement) [2015] EWFC B66, Gloucestershire County Council v M and C [2015] EWFC B147, Gloucestershire County Council v S [2015] EWFC B149, Re AS (Unlawful Removal of a Child) [2015] EWFC B150, a case where damages were awarded against the London Borough of Brent, and Medway Council v M and T (By Her Children’s Guardian) [2015] EWFC B164, another case where substantial damages were awarded against a local authority. I need not yet further lengthen this judgment with an analysis of this melancholy litany but, if I may say so, Directors of Social Services and Local Authority Heads of Legal Services might be well advised to study all these cases, and all the other cases I have mentioned on the point, with a view to considering whether their authority’s current practices and procedures are satisfactory.
  6. The misuse of section 20 in a case, like this, with an international element, is particularly serious. I have already drawn attention (paragraphs 50-51 above) to the consequences of the delay in this case. In Leicester City Council v S & Ors [2014] EWHC 1575 (Fam), a Hungarian child born in this country on 26 March 2013 was accommodated by the local authority under section 20 on 12 April 2013 but the care proceedings were not commenced until 10 October 2013. Moylan J was extremely critical of the local authority. I have already set out (paragraph 115 above) his observations on the wider picture.
  7. What the recent case-law illustrates to an alarming degree are four separate problems, all too often seen in combination.
  8. The first relates to the failure of the local authority to obtain informed consent from the parent(s) at the outset. 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. We dealt with the point in Re W (Children) [2014] EWCA Civ 1065, para 34:

    “as Hedley J put it in Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH [2012] EWHC 2190 (Fam), [2013] 2 FLR 987, para 27, the use of section 20 “must not be compulsion in disguise”. And any such agreement requires genuine consent, not mere “submission in the face of asserted State authority”: R (G) v Nottingham City Council and Nottingham University Hospital [2008] EWHC 400 (Admin), [2008] 1 FLR 1668, para 61, and Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH [2012] EWHC 2190 (Fam), [2013] 2 FLR 987, para 44.”

  9. In this connection local authorities and their employees must heed the guidance set out by Hedley J in Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH [2012] EWHC 2190 (Fam), [2013] 2 FLR 987, para 46:

    “(i) Every parent has the right, if capacitous, to exercise their parental responsibility to consent under s 20 to have their child accommodated by the local authority and every local authority has power under s 20(4) 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 s 3 of the Mental Capacity Act 2005, 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 s 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.”

  10. I add that in cases where the parent is not fluent in English it is vital to ensure that the parent has a proper understanding of what precisely they are being asked to agree to.
  11. The second problem relates to the form in which the consent of the parent(s) is recorded. There is, in law, no requirement for the agreement to be in or evidenced by writing: R (G) v Nottingham City Council and Nottingham University Hospital [2008] EWHC 400 (Admin), [2008] 1 FLR 1668, para 53. But a prudent local authority will surely always wish to ensure that an alleged parental consent in such a case is properly recorded in writing and evidenced by the parent’s signature.
  12. A feature of recent cases has been the serious deficiencies apparent in the drafting of too many section 20 agreements. In Re W (Children) [2014] EWCA Civ 1065, we expressed some pungent observations about the form of an agreement which in places was barely literate. Tomlinson LJ (para 41) described the agreement as “almost comical in the manner in which it apparently proclaims that it has been entered into under something approaching duress.” In Williams and anor v London Borough of Hackney [2015] EWHC 2629 (QB), the Deputy Judge was exceedingly critical (para 65) both of the terms of the agreement and of the circumstances in which the parents’ ‘consent’ had been obtained. There had, he said, been “compulsion in disguise” and “such agreement or acquiescence as took place was not fairly obtained.”
  13. The third problem relates to the fact that, far too often, the arrangements under section 20 are allowed to continue for far too long. This needs no elaboration.
  14. This is related to the fourth problem, the seeming reluctance of local authorities to return the child to the parent(s) immediately upon a withdrawal of parental consent. It is important for local authorities to recognise that, as section 20(8) of the 1989 Act provides:

    “Any person who has parental responsibility for a child may at any time remove the child from accommodation provided by or on behalf of the local authority under this section.”

    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.

  15. It follows, in my judgment, that for the future good practice requires the following, in addition to proper compliance with the guidance given by Hedley J which I have set out above: i) Wherever possible the agreement of a parent to the accommodation of their child under section 20 should be properly recorded in writing and evidenced by the parent’s signature.

    ii) The written document should be clear and precise as to its terms, drafted in simple and straight-forward language that the particular parent can readily understand.

    iii) The written document should spell out, following the language of section 20(8), that the parent can “remove the child” from the local authority accommodation “at any time”.

    iv) The written document should not seek to impose any fetters on the exercise of the parent’s right under section 20(8).

    v) Where the parent is not fluent in English, the written document should be translated into the parent’s own language and the parent should sign the foreign language text, adding, in the parent’s language, words to the effect that ‘I have read this document and I agree to its terms.’

  16. 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.

 

The marker is down then.  Any LA facing a challenge about misuse of section 20 is on notice that damages may follow, and certainly where the misuse begins after today’s judgment one would expect damages to play a part.

 

The President also tackles here something which has been on my mind for a month. The practice by which agreement is reached that an Interim Care Order is not needed, because the parent agrees (either in a section 20 written agreement) or in a preamble in the Court order that they “agree to section 20 accommodation and agree not to remove without giving seven days notice”   – that is a fairly common compromise which avoids the need for an ICO or to have a fight in Court about the child’s legal status where it is agreed by the parents that the child should stay in foster care whilst assessments are carried out.

 

As the President says here

 

para 169

 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.

 

and here

para 170

iv) The written document should not seek to impose any fetters on the exercise of the parent’s right under section 20(8)

 

I don’t think that this is legally permissable any longer. (The Court of Appeal could, of course, have said explicitly that such a fetter can only be made where the parent agrees after having had independent legal advice, but they didn’t)

That means that Courts up and down the country are going to be faced with arguments as to whether the right thing for a child is to make an Interim Care Order, OR to rely on a section 20 agreement that could be withdrawn at any time  (including the obvious nightmare scenarios of “twenty minutes after we leave Court” or “at five to five on a Friday night” or “at 5pm on Christmas Eve).

 

The other thrust of the President’s comments on section 20 (8) objections are that as a result, surely even a delay in return of the child to place the matter before the Court for an EPO hearing is going to be a breach unless the parents themselves agree to that course of action.  That in turn raises the spectre of an increase in children being taken into Police Protection, since a forseeable outcome of this case is:-

 

(A) Parent says at 4.55pm on Friday “I want little Johnny home now, I object to section 20”

(B) LA are in breach of the Act and may be committing a criminal offence if that child is not on his way home by 4.56pm

(C) Courts aren’t likely to be able to hear an EPO application on one minutes notice

(D) The police remove under Police Protection instead

 

  [I seriously don’t recommend that as an option as a result of the many cases which batter social workers and police officers for misuse of Police Protection, but I do wonder whether the current case law on Police Protection really works after Re N  – those cases making it plain that it should be the Court decision not a police decision only work if there is time to place the matter before the Court.  BUT until one of them is challenged and the law on Police Protection changes, almost any removal under Police Protection can be scrutinised and perhap[s condemned.  And of course the alternative to THAT, is that more and more cases will instead find their way into care proceedings.  I think that the decisions on Police Protection and section 20 are right, but if we have learned nothing else since the Family Justice Review it should be that fixing one problem often has substantial unintended consequences and causes another problem elsewhere]

 

So, LA lawyers up and down the country, get hold of the current section 20 agreement, and rewrite it to comply with this judgment.

Fast and the Furious – Tunbridge Wells Drift

 

 

Okay, this piece isn’t really about Vin Diesel and The Rock racing cars around the backstreets of Kent. But it is about a case about  Medway (which is sort of near Kent) weren’t fast, and as a result the Judge got furious. And where the central issue was drift.  Section 20 drift, y’all.

(*Tunbridge Wells have done nothing wrong in this story – I just needed a “T” town for the Tokyo Drift reference. )

 

I’ve been writing about section 20 drift for a while, but perhaps given that this is a really strong judgment, it is worth a quick recap.  The Human Rights Act compensation to be paid to the mother by Medway was £20,000 and to the child also £20,000.   (And possibly costs to follow – see bottom of this post for an explanation of that)

 

 

  • Without a court forum it was solely the local authority that empowered itself to make decisions about a child unlawfully held by them, with simply a check in the form of the IRO system on the progress and welfare of a child in local authority care (and which system I consider further below).
  • T drifted in foster care without any clear focus on her contact, her need for therapy or her and her Mother’s rights to family life. I find shocking the inattention to contact, such that Medway Council is not even able to specify clearly what has and has not taken place, but is obliged to admit to serious gaps in contact and flaws in its support for this essential aspect of their family life. There would not only have arisen a duty under s34 Children Act 1989 to promote contact if an ICO were in place, but both T and Mother would have had a voice, legal advice and representation within proceedings to pursue their concerns about her accommodation, care plan, therapeutic needs and contact and Medway Council ‘s care of T would have been subject to the necessary judicial scrutiny applying the relevant careful tests relating to the threshold and welfare criteria set out in the Children Act to ensure interference with their family life was in T’s best interests, necessary and proportionate.

 

 

Section 20 is the power under the Children Act 1989 for children to be in foster care without a Court order – it is categorised as a voluntary foster placement. Typically, the parents are asked to consent, or even they come forward and say that they can’t manage, aren’t coping or the child needs a break.  Section 20 can be a really useful tool – if there’s genuine cooperation between the parents and the social worker, nobody wants to force the case into Court and up the stakes.

Where it starts to get problematic, as we’ve seen from a number of cases over the last three years, is where the consent and cooperation isn’t that genuine but that parents either don’t understand or have explained to them what section 20 really is and that they can say no, or are pressured/cajoled/threatened into agreeing, or in the latest spate of cases where a Local Authority is relying on a parent simply not objecting to the foster placement.  There are reasons why a parent might not come forward and object – most obviously that without access to a lawyer or it being explained they don’t even know that they can, or they are afraid of rocking the boat, or they are having faith that the system will work and do the right thing, or that they are intimidated that if they object then the case will be rushed off to Court and that this will be bad for them.

So ultimately, section 20 drift cases are about an imbalance of power – the State is taking advantage of the fact that parents without access to a lawyer won’t object or will agree to section 20.  And so it becomes an alternative to going into Court proceedings. Court proceedings are expensive, and involve a lot of work (going to Court, writing statements and chronologies etc) and of course in Court social workers don’t necessarily get things their own way and the Court can disagree with them.  So there can be a temptation, if the parents aren’t demanding the child back, to just keep going with the section 20 foster placement. And this of course is the drift element – these children can wait months or even longer, sat in limbo – nobody has decided whether the child can ever go home or whether the child’s future lays elsewhere, the case just drifts.  By the time the case finally gets to Court, that relationship between child and parent can be hard to put back together, and the problems the parent has may take time to address and it can be harder for them to get the child back.

Section 20 drift, in short, is bad.

It may be happening more as a result of a series of pressures – firstly a general demand within Local Authorities to save money and cut costs (due to significant cuts to their budgets) and secondly the reforms to Care proceedings that mean that more and more is expected to be done before going to Court – there can be a temptation to keep the case out of Court until all of the assessments are done and everything is just perfect. It is a bit of an unintended consequence – which we’re seeing a lot of since the PLO (Public Law Outline) reforms came into being.  This isn’t a problem limited to Medway here, or Brent as in the last reported case, or Gloucester/Bristol where their Judge has really seized the issue.  I’ve worked in a lot of Local Authorities, I’ve worked against a lot of Local Authorities and I’ve seen it all around the country.

 

That’s the background.

On with this case

Medway Council v M &T 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B164.html

 

This case was decided by Her Honour Judge Lazarus  (readers may recall her from the case where a mother tape recorded a foster carer being dreadfully abusive to her https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/06/03/tape-recording-paying-off/   )

 

When the child T, was five, she came to the attention of Medway Council, and her mother M, was having mental health problems and was detained under the Mental Health Act. Medway placed the child in foster care, but didn’t actually have mum’s consent (she probably would not have had capacity to give it in any event)

 

 

 

  • T was born on 9.1.08, making her 7 years 9 months old now, and just 5 when she first came to the notice of Medway Council. This was due to a referral made on 8.2.13 by T’s school that T was being collected by a number of adults and concerns that Mother may be a victim of trafficking. Coincidentally, within a few days T was placed in emergency foster care, as her Mother was detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act on 11.2.13.
  • It is clear that Mother was too unwell to discuss T’s accommodation and there are no records whatsoever of any discussion with Mother of T’s whereabouts and care until her discharge in August 2013. It is likely, and there is no evidence to the contrary, that there was no proper explanation to her within this six month period, and Medway Council do not suggest there was, albeit I accept that for some of this time she would have been suffering from severe and disabling mental ill-health. There is certainly no document suggesting that there was any agreement by Mother to this accommodation. What Medway Council claims is that this was a different kind of lawful accommodation under s20, until she was well enough to consider T’s accommodation by Medway Council. It was not, and I shall deal with this further below.

 

 

That argument you may recall from the case I wrote about last week, decided by Her Honour Judge Rowe QC  – in which she decided that the power under section 20 needed to be exercised with capacitious consent, and not merely relying on the absence of objection.

 

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/10/12/unlawful-removal-of-a-child-compensation-paid/

 

[That’s the one where I used the comparison of a 10 year old assuming that it was okay to eat all of the Penguin biscuits whilst his mum is upstairs because “mum didn’t tell me that I COULDN’T]

 

In this case, T remained in foster care ostensibly under section 20 until care proceedings were issued – the period involved was 2 years and 3 months. She was in ‘voluntary’ foster care rom February 2013 until proceedings were finally issued in May 2015.  The mother had not even known that this had happened until August 2013, some SIX MONTHS after the child was taken into foster care.  Mother and baby are currently together in a specialist foster placement, and I wish them both well.  As the Judge points out, this is the longest reported case of section 20 drift.

 

The Judge went through everything very carefully (it is an extremely well-drawn judgment and would be recommended reading for anyone dealing with such a case – particularly the analysis of damages)

 

The conclusions were :-

CONCLUSION

 

  • For all of the above reasons I find that Medway Council ‘s accommodation of T and her removal from her Mother was unlawful, and as a result I have no need to go on to consider whether it was ‘necessary’ within the meaning of Article 8(2) ECHR.
  • I also find that Medway Council failed to issue proceedings in a proper and timely manner. This was despite warnings from June 2013 onwards. I have not found it possible to understand why there arose the original misunderstanding of the correct legal approach, why the advice given was not followed, why further legal planning meetings were not held until 2015, nor even why proceedings were not issued immediately in 2015 once the matter was looked at again by Ms Cross in January. The period involved is 2 years and 3 months, the longest currently reported in any case reported on this issue to date.

 

REMEDIES – JUST SATISFACTION

A. DECLARATIONS

 

  • T and Mother are entitled to the following declarations:

 

a. The local authority breached their rights under Article 8 ECHR in that they

i. Unlawfully removed T from Mother’s care on 11.2.13;

ii. Failed to obtain properly informed capacitous consent for T to be accommodated, or to consider/assess adequately the question of the Mother’s capacity to consent, at that date or subsequently;

iii. Accommodated T without Mother’s consent between 11.2.13 and 7.5.15;

iv. Failed to inform Mother adequately or involve her sufficiently in the decision-making process in relation to T;

v. Failed to address the issues relating to their relationship and contact between them adequately;

vi. Permitted unacceptable delay in addressing all of the above.

b. The local authority breached the rights of T and Mother under Article 6 ECHR in that they failed to issue proceedings in a timely manner.

 

What were Medway going to do to avoid this in the future?

 

 

  • Ms Cross has set out in her statement a number of vitally necessary improvements to Medway Council’s procedures and performance which I heartily welcome, particularly as this is not the only case where the use of s20 by Medway Council has been of concern (I am aware of at least three such others, including a reported judgment of mine earlier this year). The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding and depends on consistent and rigorous application of these reforms. They are as follows:

 

a. “During the period of January to July 2015 we have reviewed a number of cases where the child/ren are accommodated under S20 and where the child/ren are aged 12 and under. Where required we have issued or are issuing proceedings;. We have begun this process for children aged 12 and over and this will complete by 1st October 2015.

b. These reviews will continue and with immediate effect we have agreed that our Legal Gateway Panel, chaired by the Head of Service for Advice and Duty, Child Protection and Children in Need, will continue to monitor and track children already accommodated under S20 and will in future review all new cases involving s20;

c. The reduction in the use of S20 accommodation is built into all our service and improvement plans

d. We have reviewed how court work is undertaken within the LAC & Proceedings service and going forward will be targeting this work at the social workers who have the most suitable skills for court work;

e. Training has been provided in recent weeks for social workers on legal processes and proceedings, including the issue of s20, and this will continue on a rolling basis throughout the year.

f. We will be holding workshops on the use of S20 in September and October to provide clear guidance and support for Social Workers to ensure they are equipped to deal with any s20 issues arising and that they fully understand how S20 should be utilised and monitored. We will be providing new policies and procedures for staff across CSC in the use of s20. We plan to have these finalised by September 18th and we would be happy to share these with the Court and partner agencies including Cafcass at our quarterly meetings with the Judiciary and other agencies.

g. At monthly meetings between the 2 Heads of service from CSC and the Head of Legal S20 will be a standing agenda item and we will discuss each child who has been accommodated under s20 in the intervening month to satisfy ourselves that the appropriate management oversight and case related activity is in place.

h. I am in discussion with the Head of Adult Mental Health services to organise workshops for staff on capacity issues and deprivation of liberty (DOL’s) awareness. I hope that these workshops can be completed by 01.11.2015.

i. We have an adult mental health duty social worker located within our advice and duty services to advise and assist on those cases referred to us where the parent/s have a mental health or learning disability.

j. We are organising PAMs training for a number of staff so that we have more staff located within CSC who are able to assess parents with a learning disability in order that we can improve the service provided to them. We hope that this will have taken place by 01.12.2015.

k. We have increased management capacity and have formalised an Operational Manager post in each of the service areas. They will have direct responsibility for ensuring that court work proceeds in a timely manner and that work is of a high standard

l. S20 cases will also be reviewed at a monthly Permanence Panel wherein the permanence planning for LAC children is reviewed. This panel, chaired by my HoS colleague has attendees from Legal services, the Principle IRO and the adoption service.

m. As a result of this review I am also working with my colleagues to review the S20 form that parents sign and we are introducing a checklist for staff when seeking S20 accommodation to ensure that they address all the salient issues with parents. These issues will include considering the parent/s needs arising from a mental health/learning disability. These reviews will have completed by 31.08.2015 and the updated forms will be in use thereafter.

n. Finally the reviewing service have implemented a new review whereby the allocated IRO will review all cases between the LAC review (ie every 6 weeks) to ensure that all planning is on track. Where required concerns will be escalated to the appropriate Operational Manager and if there is still no resolution to the relevant Head of Service.”

 

 

Now, an important check and balance on social worker’s actions or inactions is supposed to be the Independent Reviewing Officer system. The IROs are supposed to hold social workers to account and make sure that things like this don’t happen.  There are regular reviews of children’s cases when they are in foster care. What ought to have happened at those reviews was that the IRO should have got the social workers to commit to either a plan of short assessment and then review the outcome, or make a decision to return the child to mother’s care, or make a decision that the child couldn’t go home and make the Court application to have the child’s long term future resolved. That didn’t happen.

 

LOOKED AFTER CHILDREN REVIEWS & INDEPENDENT REVIEWING OFFICERS

 

  • Ms Dunkin’s statement is helpful in its analysis of the history and the role of the Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs). They are supposed to perform a crucial role monitoring the care of Looked After children by reviewing and improving care planning and challenging drift and delay.
  • It is highly concerning that there have been five IROs in the last two years before proceedings were issued.
  • There was no IRO allocated until 18.3.13, five weeks after T was accommodated, so she was therefore not afforded a review of her care within 20 days of her accommodation as is required under the IRO Handbook and Placement Regulations. By the end of May that IRO is recorded as being on long term sick leave, and this is considered to be the reason why there is no minute of the first LAC review available.
  • Every LAC review minute inaccurately records/repeats the date of T’s accommodation as having taken place a month later than it occurred.
  • I commend the second IRO LC for correctly requiring a legal review of Medway Council’s position not to take proceedings (11.6.13), however despite it not having taken place by the next LAC review that LC conducted there then began the series of failures by LC and each subsequent IRO to challenge the Social Worker and team manager and director of services about failing to follow the clear recommendation initially made in June 2013.
  • No subsequent LAC reviews (18.9.13, 17.4.14, 8.7.14, 25.11.14) made any further clear recommendations as to parental responsibility, legal status or the use of s20 although the issues are mentioned, save to repeat (presumably by cut and paste as opposed to direct engagement with the issue) the same paragraph that set out the original recommendation of 11.6.13. By 8.7.14 what is added is a recommendation to seek legal advice with a view to securing T’s permanency. I am concerned that this betrays that the review process and LC failed to recognise both the full range of T’s needs and her and her Mother’s rights to family life, and had moved on simply to consider how to regularise what had by then become the status quo, T having been in foster care for almost 18 months at that date. This is particularly worrying as that LAC review meeting also demonstrated Mother’s vulnerability: she was accompanied by an extremely domineering ‘friend’ who described herself as an ‘auntie’ (and whom the Poppy Project is concerned may have had some involvement in Mother’s exploitation), and which led to a decision that all future meetings must be conducted with Mother alone.
  • Contact is touched on in the LAC reviews, but no clear picture or recommendation emerges. For example, the review of 17.4.14 mentions the reintroduction of contact I have already referred to, but little further is pursued. At the same meeting the problem with T’s passport and therefore the implementation of respite care during her foster carer’s holiday was raised and not addressed adequately, let alone robustly.
  • Overall, it is clear that although the fundamental fault lay with Medway Council by its social work and legal teams, the IRO process failed T, and by extension her M, by frequent changes of IRO and each one failing to rigorously apply themselves to the outstanding issues with attention or subsequently following up Medway Council’s failings, and if necessary escalating the issue. Ms Dunkin rightly concedes that previous IROs were not robust enough in this respect.
  • The statutory provisions, regulations and the guidance in the IRO Handbook covering the function and performance of IROs has been carefully reviewed elsewhere (see for example A & S (Children) v Lancashire County Council [2012] EWHC 1689 (Fam) at paragraphs 168-217 in particular). I do not propose to make specific declarations in relation to this aspect of the case. No such declarations are sought, and the appointment and management of IROs falls to the relevant local authority in any event. Additionally, I take into account that the correct recommendation was made in June 2013 and subsequently repeated, albeit it was not followed up adequately or at all, and was ignored by the local authority from the outset.
  • Ms Dunkin confirms that since October 2014 there has been a ‘root and branch review’ of the IRO service: immediate allocation of an IRO, with 90% of reviews now on time; improved IRO requirements and monitoring; performance and training audits with areas of improvement requiring action within a set timescale; direct input by IROs onto the electronic system at Medway Council so alerting team managers to implement their own quality and performance processes; shortened timescales for escalating challenges with a 20 day period before it is referred to the Director of Children’s Services; and mid-way reviews between LAC reviews enabling the IRO to check on progression of care plans and recommendations. Ms Dunkin as Principal Reviewing Officer now sits on the Legal Gateway Panel, resource panel and permanency panel.
  • Again these are welcome and necessary improvements, but their effectiveness will depend upon rigorous application of those improved practices.

 

 

 

On the issue of costs, we have a peculiar situation at present, where if a parent follows the law which is to make the Human Rights Act compensation claim within care proceedings, the Legal Aid Agency (the Government department who pay for the ‘free’ legal representation of a parent within care proceedings) will take all of the compensation to cover the legal costs, and the parent or child would only get anything left over.  That pretty much sucks.  Is there anyone who thinks that it is the Legal Aid Agency who should be compensated for what was done to mother and this child? Of course not.

 

So, apparently there are moves afoot to reverse this fairly recent and frankly moronic policy, and the Judge reserved the issues of costs until then.  If the policy doesn’t change, I’d expect an order that Medway also pay mother and T’s court costs, so that the compensation award goes to the mother and T rather than to a Government agency.

 

While I have assessed this award, I am asked for the time being not to order its payment nor to consider costs. This is at the request of the Official Solicitor who is currently investigating the most appropriate way to manage such an award for a protected party within care proceedings given that this is an award properly made within care proceedings (cf. Re L (Care Proceedings: Human Rights Claims) [2003] EWHC 665 (Fam)) and Mother is rightly in receipt of non-means and non-merits tested Legal Aid, but where concerns exist that the Legal Aid Agency may intend to take steps purporting to claim the whole costs of Mother’s representation in these care proceedings from that award. I shall therefore deal with the issue of ordering payment and costs at a later date.

 

 

The Judge here also considered the issue that I raised in the Her Honour Judge Rowe case, as to whether a very short piece of section 20 accommodation if the parent is unable to care for the child and one is establishing whether that’s a really short period  (i.e mum goes into hospital overnight, but the next day is released with medication and is fine) might be warranted – because the alternative is for the mother to be sectioned and on the same day social workers go to Court to get an Emergency Protection Order which would be awful if she happened to be released the next day.

 

It could be argued that where there is such an emergency as this, and indeed as in the Brent case, that it may be reasonable to wait for a short period without taking proceedings in order to review the parent’s progress in hospital in the event that their ability to care for their child might return. This would then avoid the stress and expense of time and resources in bringing unnecessary proceedings that would then have to be withdrawn. I concur with HHJ Rowe’s analysis that a month in the Brent case was too long. It may be reasonable, in rare and very clear cases where such enquiries could be reasonably considered as likely to bear fruit, to wait for at most a day or two while the local authority explored the possibility of an imminent return to a parent’s care. I bear in mind here that both in logic and principle such a period should be less than the time limit of 72 hours which is stipulated in the Children Act as applicable to PPOs. However, otherwise, save perhaps for the first few hours while the child’s status is considered, and advice sought and steps taken to issue proceedings, it must be right that proceedings are brought as immediately as possible for all the reasons discussed above.

 

I think that’s really sensible and pragmatic.  Like the Brent case, this is not legally binding precedent on anyone other than the parties who were in the case, but it would certainly be persuasive in such cases and equally a Local Authority who go beyond that 72 hour period are badly exposed to a Human Rights claim of this type.