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
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”)
- Other matters: section 20 of the 1989 Act
- 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.
- As I said in Re A (A Child), Darlington Borough Council v M  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)  EWCA Civ 1065, as also to the decision of Keehan J in Northamptonshire County Council v AS and Ors  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.
- Then there was the decision of Cobb J in Newcastle City Council v WM and ors  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)  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  EWHC 2629 (QB), another case in which the local authority had to pay damages.
- 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)  EWFC 775, a case involving the London Borough of Redbridge, Re N (Children)  EWFC 37, a case involving South Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council, Medway Council v A and ors (Learning Disability: Foster Placement)  EWFC B66, Gloucestershire County Council v M and C  EWFC B147, Gloucestershire County Council v S  EWFC B149, Re AS (Unlawful Removal of a Child)  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)  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.
- 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  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.
- What the recent case-law illustrates to an alarming degree are four separate problems, all too often seen in combination.
- 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)  EWCA Civ 1065, para 34:
“as Hedley J put it in Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH  EWHC 2190 (Fam),  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  EWHC 400 (Admin),  1 FLR 1668, para 61, and Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH  EWHC 2190 (Fam),  2 FLR 987, para 44.”
- 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  EWHC 2190 (Fam),  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.”
- 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.
- 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  EWHC 400 (Admin),  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.
- A feature of recent cases has been the serious deficiencies apparent in the drafting of too many section 20 agreements. In Re W (Children)  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  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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.’
- 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
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.
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.