An analysis of the High Court decision in A, S and Others v Lancashire County Council 2012, and the human rights breaches identified therein.
I remember that Chutzpah was explained to me many years ago as being the quality that enables a person on trial for murdering both of his parents to plead in mitigation that he is an orphan. And this High Court decision is very much about orphans, or at least “statutory orphans”
This is a category of children, who the Court initially decided should be adopted, but didn’t get adopted and end up being long term fostered, but with that significant change in care plan never having been ventilated in the Court.
There have been grumblings about this group of ‘statutory orphans’ for some time, but this is the first time that a Court has ruled that it is incumbent on both LAs and Independent Reviewing Officers to take these children out of ‘statutory orphanage’ and have the case back before the Court.
It emerges from litigation involving multiple children against Lancashire County Council. I do not pick on Lancashire in this analysis, save that they were unlucky enough to be the authority who ended up with this issue before the High Court.
It deals with the not entirely unusual, though sad, situation where a child having been made the subject of a Freeing Order (or now, a Placement Order) does not go on to have the adoptive placement that the Court felt was right for them, being found. This is not necessarily as a result of a lack of effort or desire or commitment.
It is the sad reality that all of the adoption scorecards and media rhetoric ignores – there are some children who need to have adoptive families found for them who simply won’t get that family. They are the wrong age, the wrong gender, the wrong ethnicity, or the damage that they have endured has simply been too much for any adoptive carer to countenance. Sometimes children with all of these ‘anchors’ weighing them down still manage to get an adoptive family – it is impossible to say what might strike a chord on a particular day with a particular set of adopters willing to take on a child when they see a range of details of possible children. Sometimes those children you thought impossible to place just find a set of carers who just fit. Sometimes, they don’t.
This case deals with the ones who don’t. Where the care plan of adoption can’t be delivered, and the child remains subject to a Freeing Order or Placement Order, they are in a peculiar sort of limbo, which this Judge describes as being a ‘statutory orphan’. The parents PR is circumscribed far more than it would be if the child were merely subject to a Care Order, and the primary body who exercise PR is the Adoption Agency, rather than the Local Authority. Now, for all practical purposes, the Adoption Agency and the LA are the same thing, but the demands on them where a child is subject to a Placement Order and where the child is merely subject to a Care Order are different, subtly so, but significantly so.
In this case, the Judge made the following declarations that the LA and the Independent Reviewing Officer had behaved in a way that breached the children and parents human rights.
[Some of these may be purely case-specific, but there are more important general principles, which I have put in italics]
1. Lancashire County Council has acted incompatibly with the rights of A and S, as guaranteed by Articles 8, 6 and 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1950, in that it:
(1) Failed to provide A and S with a proper opportunity of securing a permanent adoptive placement and a settled and secure home life. (Art. 8)
(2) Failed to seek revocation of the orders freeing A and S for adoption, made on the 19 March 2001 pursuant to Section 18(1) Adoption Act 1976, which effectively deprived them of: (a) The protection afforded to children under the Children Act 1989; (b) Contact with their mother and/or other members of their family; (c) Access to the Court and the procedural protection of a Guardian. (Arts. 6 & 8)
(3) Permitted A and S to be subjected to degrading treatment and physical assault and failed adequately to protect their physical and sexual safety and their psychological health (Arts. 3 and 8).
(4) Failed to provide accurate information concerning A and S’s legal status to the Independent Reviewing Officers. (Art. 8)
(5) Failed to ensure that there were sufficient procedures in place to give effect to the recommendations of the Looked After Child Reviews. (Art 8.)
(6) Failed to promote the rights of A and S to independent legal advice. (Art. 6)
(7) Specifically, failed to act as the ‘responsible body’ to enable A and S to pursue any potential claims for criminal injuries compensation, tortious liability and/or breach of Human Rights arising from their treatment by their mother, or by the Hs or by Mrs B. (Art. 6)
2. Mr H, the Independent Reviewing Officer for A and S, has acted incompatibly with the rights of A and S, as guaranteed by Articles 8 and 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1950, in that he:
(1) Failed to identify that A and S’s Human Rights had been and were being infringed. (Arts. 6 & 8) (2) Failed to take effective action to ensure that LCC acted upon the recommendations of Looked After Child Reviews. (Art. 8) (3) Failed to refer the circumstances of A and S to CAFCASS Legal. (Art. 8)
It must, as a result of this case, be at the very least arguable, that any child who is the subject of a Placement Order, but for whom the adoption agency have now ceased searching for an adoptive placement, has a potential claim for breach of human rights against the LA (if they don’t act to change their legal status and revoke the Placement Order, or at the very least, ensure that the practical differences that exist between a child subject to a Placement Order and Care Order in terms of LA obligations towards them disappear in this situation) and the IRO (if the IRO does not push the LA towards remedying the situation, or failing that, notify CAFCASS of the problem)
Now, it is important to note that whilst this Judge made it plain that children remaining on Freeing Orders should have that remedied, he did draw a distinction between Freeing Orders and Placement Orders and it is at least arguable that this judgment does not go so far as to say that a Local Authority or IRO is in breach of human rights by not applying to revoke Placement Orders where it is clear that the plan is no longer adoption. But the door is at the very least, ajar on that point for a future claim.
There are relatively few Freeing Order cases now (since they stopped being made in 2002, and most of the children who were made subject to them will have been placed, or reached adulthood by now), but there are substantially more cases of children subject to Placement Orders who will never be placed. I would not be surprised if the national total was somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 such children. Are revocation applications to be made on each?
And are each of those going to be swiftly resolved – with the parents and Guardian simply accepting that the Placement Order be revoked and the Care Order (made at the time, but simply ‘frozen’ whilst the Placement Order is in effect) revived? Or are some of them / most of them going to result in a root and branch review of placement, contact, the possibility of rehabilitation, fresh assessments etc?
Without saying too much, I suspect that most authorities will slavishly follow this judgment in exactly the same way as they slavishly follow the Supreme Court’s judgment about the provision of section 20 accommodation to teenagers. Or, as always, Shakespeare puts it best “A custom more honoured in the breach, than the observance”
*Cautious note – I in no way speak for my own or any LA here, this is just my own personal cynicism.
The IRO point is an interesting one, and I would be interested to know where (if orders for damages/costs orders are made) any costs arising from such a claim would be funded.
The Court have not yet dealt with that aspect at all, but I suspect some financial penalties will ensue. Is the IRO at any personal risk from this, or are any damages ordered against them falling on them as part of their profession and met by the LA? (This would be quite straightforward in relation to the social workers on the case, as the LA would have to fund the costs, but IROs occupy a peculiar position both being simultaneously inside and outside of the LA)
The Judge in this case helpfully recounts exactly why the IRO role was beefed up following the House of Lords (as it then was) politely thanking the Court of Appeal for their creativity in inventing ‘starred care plans’ but saying the legal equivalent of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ and ending that ‘ill-starred’ relationship at an early stage.
I have spoken before on this blog about how rarely the IRO provision to legally whistle-blow to CAFCASS about failure of a Local Authority to implement a care plan is used, and how the power for CAFCASS to actually make an application to Court in that event has never been used. (If you want to know the numbers – 8 total referrals to CAFCASS, 0 total applications arising from them)
CAFCASS weren’t dragged into this one, but I can’t see why, in a theoretical situation where the LA hadn’t revoked, the IRO had made the referral and CAFCASS had not made an application, that CAFCASS would not be added to the list of breaches.
(Of course, Parliament could have addressed this all very simply by ensuring that a Placement Order had a “Mission Impossible” clause, where it would self-destruct after two years – unless an adoption application had been placed before a Court and not yet resolved.)
I don’t think that the Judge was asked to address whether the law itself was incompatible with Human Rights, and I think it would not be, because there is provision for the LA to make an application to revoke; but the law could easily have placed on the LA a duty to make such an application to revoke where the plan is no longer adoption and the order no longer appropriate – which is effectively the position now following this case)
I suspect the attitude of LA’s and the volume of revocation of Placement Order applications will be informed once the level of costs and damages Lancashire endured are known and more to the point, whether the principles in this case are confined to Freeing Orders or have that broader construction.
(And if I were a journalist, an FOIA request to HMCS for the numbers of revocation applications over say the last 3 years and the next 18 months would be interesting – if it isn’t spiking considerably, then statutory orphans are still in the position that the High Court felt was wholly unacceptable and causing them irreparable harm)