This is a High Court case in which the Judge (Keehan J) was very (and rightly) critical of the Local Authority, including criticism that when they were asked for explanations of their conduct prior to and during the proceedings those explanations were not satisfactory and amounted to not much more than attempts to defend the indefensible.
Northamptonshire and DS 2014
The case ended with a child, DS, being placed with his maternal grandparents in Latvia.
It began, as cock-ups so often do, with a section 20 agreement. There were some legitimate concerns that DS would be at risk in the care of his mother and his mother was asked to agree to place him in ‘voluntary’ foster care. This happened when he was 15 days old.
The Local Authority did not properly think about care proceedings until five months later, and even worse than that, having decided that care proceedings were the right thing to do, did not then issue them until five months after that.
The care proceedings were plagued by delay, most if not all being ascribed to the Local Authority, ending up with a child spending nearly two years in foster care when there were grandparents who were eventually able to care for him.
The Guardian and mother issued claims for Human Rights damages on behalf of the child, and the LA by the time of the final hearing were accepting that they had violated the child’s human rights in all of these human rights claims:-
(a) The local authority failed to take any protective action to safeguard the child despite having concerns that he was at risk of suffering significant harm between 15 and 30 January 2013, in breach of his article 6 and 8 rights.
(b) Whilst the child was accommodated pursuant to section 20 CA on 30 January 2013, a decision to initiate proceedings was not made until 23 May 2013 and an application for a care order was not made until 5 November 2013. Over this period of 11 months the child was without access to any independent representation of his welfare interests and had no access to any remedy or recourse and no person was exercising parental responsibility for him, in breach of the child’s article 6, 8 and 13 rights. *
(c) The local authority, by its acts or omissions, caused or contributed to a series of delays in the filing of necessary evidence during the course of the care proceedings and the final evidence filed for hearing in October 2014 was inadequate and incomplete, in breach of the child’s and mother’s article 6 rights.
(d) The delays and general mismanagement of the case by the local authority has been seriously prejudicial to the child’s welfare and the child’s and mother’s ability to enjoy a family life with a member of his extended family prior to November 2014, which may have irredeemable consequences for the child’s future welfare and development. Such failures were in breach of the child’s article 8 rights.
(e) The child and mother were subject to a high turnover of social workers and locum social workers with conduct of his case file leading to a lack of cohesive, comprehensive management and care for a significant period of time and in breach of the child’s and mother’s article 6 rights and prejudicial to their article 8 rights.
(f) The local authority failed to organise contact between the child and his mother in accordance with an explicit order of the court and the advice of the Children’s Guardian for a significant period of time and poor organisation and communication by the local authority led to various sessions of contact being cancelled. Such failures were in breach of the child’s and mother’s article 8 rights.
*you don’t often hear of article 13 rights, but it was a good call in this case:-
Everyone whose rights and freedoms as set forth in this Convention are violated shall have an effective remedy before a national authority notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity.
There wasn’t an effective remedy until the LA issued the care proceedings that should have begun in February at worst, but instead started in November.
A package amounting to £17,000 was agreed by the Local Authority and approved by the Court.
Looking at some of the particular criticisms made by the Court:-
Inexperience of the worker and delay in issuing
I cannot begin to understand why an inexperienced social worker who was not familiar with care proceedings was allocated as a social worker for a 15 day old baby. I do not understand why it took until August to provide her with support or why senior managers did not intervene in this case. It is wholly inexcusable for a local authority to take three months to decide to issue care proceedings in respect of a very young baby and then a further five months to issue care proceedings. The fact that the parents are Latvian and that close family members lived abroad, provides no explanation less still an excuse for the extraordinary delay in this case.
The changes in social worker
I appreciate that social services’ departments have difficulties recruiting and retaining social workers but it is deeply worrying that over the course of these proceedings DS has been allocated no less than eight different social workers. It is evident to me that neither the social workers, nor the senior managers at Northampton Children’s Services Department had DS’s welfare best interests at the forefront of their minds. Worse still they did nothing to promote them. Their chaotic approach to this young baby’s care and future life was dismal.
The section 20 agreement
The use of the provisions of s.20 Children Act 1989 to accommodate was, in my judgment, seriously abused by the local authority in this case. I cannot conceive of circumstances where it would be appropriate to use those provisions to remove a very young baby from the care of its mother, save in the most exceptional of circumstances and where the removal is intended to be for a matter of days at most.
The accommodation of DS under a s.20 agreement deprived him of the benefit of having an independent children’s guardian to represent and safeguard his interests. Further, it deprived the court of the ability to control the planning for the child and to prevent or reduce unnecessary and avoidable delay in securing a permanent placement for the child at the earliest possible time.
Whether the s20 ‘consent’ was really meaningful consent
On 30 January the local authority concluded that DS was at risk of harm in the care of his mother and secured her agreement to him being placed with foster carers. I question how effective that consent was when it was sought without the mother having the benefit of an interpreter.
The catalogue of errors, omissions, delays and serial breaches of court orders in this matter is truly lamentable. They would be serious enough in respect of an older child but they are appalling in respect of a 15 day old baby. Each day, each week and each month in his young life is exceedingly precious. Where so young a child is removed from the care of his mother or father his case must be afforded the highest priority by the local authority.
None of this is good. It is, in fact, deeply bad.
Critics of the family justice system, and there are many, are entitled to point to a case like this and say that this is what goes on. The parents in this case, and the child in this case, were badly let down by professionals and there were systemic failures to put things right.
It is only a small crumb of comfort that this was a case in which the Judge dealing with it was prepared to be tenacious and forensic about those failures, with a view to preventing them happening to other unfortunate families.
As the Judge says at the end
I trust that the events of the first 23 months of DS’s life will not have a detrimental impact on his future development and his emotional and psychological well being. There is a real risk they will do so.