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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.

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“Social Services are asking me to put my child in care, and they want me to do it now”

 Some important things for you to know, if you are asked to put your child in care. And some practical tips.

 

Firstly, and I can’t stress this enough – I am not your lawyer, just A LAWYER, and what is right for you and the circumstances of your case are things I don’t know, and the best thing I can recommend is for you to either talk to your own lawyer or find a lawyer and talk to them.

If you need to find one – you came here on the net, so you have internet. Google “family law firms in X” (where X is your town or county). Look for ones who do Care work if you can. Get in touch with them and make an urgent appointment.

There might be a good reason for you, and your family, why agreeing to the children coming into care is a good thing. What I want to help you with is not agreeing just because you feel you have no choice, and before you have had chance to think and ask your own lawyer what to do. If you honestly feel that it is the right thing for you, don’t be put off by me. I am trying to help people who feel that it ISN’T the right thing for them.

That done, back to your situation. You are a parent, social workers have come to your house, told you that they are worried about your children and think they need to come into care and are asking you to agree.

Here are some important things to know before you make any decisions

1. You don’t have to say yes. It has to be your free choice.

2. You don’t have to decide right now.

3. You are entitled to tell them that you want some legal advice before you decide something as big as that.

4. If you are told “If you don’t agree we will go to Court”, this is supposed to make you agree to avoid going to Court. It doesn’t have to. The Court will listen to your side of the story, and it might be that going to Court is the right thing for you to do. At the very least, it will get you a lawyer who will listen to you, give you advice and speak on your behalf.

5. The social worker doesn’t have any magic powers to be able to take your children away. They have to have either your agreement, or a Court order. Except in very specific circumstances, they can’t get a Court order without you having a chance to be there, to have your own lawyer speak on your behalf and have the chance to have your say.  They should NEVER go away and try to get that order without you being there if they have asked you to consent to the children coming into care and you have said no. That hearing should be with you present.

6. If they DO have that Court order, you will have a chance at a later Court hearing to challenge and fight it, but I’m afraid the order does give them the power to remove (if it is an Emergency Protection Order or an Interim Care Order) and trying to prevent them won’t do much good. You can try to tell them the names of other family members who would be willing and able to look after the children (as they have to consider placing the children within the family rather than with strangers if it is safe to do so)

7. The police do have the power to take your children away without a Court order (I’ll come back to that later) so you will know that if the police aren’t there and there isn’t a court order, your children will not be going anywhere unless you agree or until you have your say in Court.

Here are suggestions for what you can do if you are asked to make that decision

Very hard to do, but keep calm. It is likely that what you do and say in the next hour or so will end up being information given to the Court. It can be information that helps you (you were calm, reasonable but firm) or that hurts you (you got aggressive, shouting, or physical, or the children were exposed to lots of drama and distress whilst all this was going on).

With that in mind, it is perfectly fine to say something like “That’s a real shock. I want to talk about this, but I don’t want the children to have to hear it. Can we sit down with the children being in another room and talk about it for a bit?”

And “I’d really like to get some legal advice about all this before I decide anything at all, does this have to be decided right now?”

If they are insisting on it being right now, it is fine for you to ask why, and also fine for you to ask them for some paper, so you can make a note of what they are saying.

It is also fine to say “I would like to call my lawyer to see what they think and I am going to do that now, just so I know where I stand”

[I don’t know whether agreeing to the children coming into care is right for you, or right for your situation, that’s a matter for you and your lawyer. What I want to do is give you the chance to make that decision and think about it and know what it means.]

The social worker will probably say something along the lines of “I’m afraid if you won’t agree now to the children going into care, then I’ll go to court and get an order for them to come into care”

And as I said earlier, you need to remember, that what they actually mean here is “I’ll go to court and ASK for an order for the children to come into care, and you will be at Court and you can ASK for them to stay at home, and the Court will make a decision”

And also that the Court don’t automatically grant those orders – they require the social worker to have evidence that the children are at risk and that going into care is the only thing that can be done, and that everything else that could be tried either has been or isn’t safe to try.

It might be that for you, going to Court is better than agreeing for the children to go into care. You would have your chance to fight this in Court, to have someone speak for you, and the chances are that if Social Services are in your home asking you to agree to the children going into care that you will eventually have to be in Court in order to get them back. So the threat of the case going to Court isn’t a good reason to agree to the children going into care, if you wouldn’t otherwise agree to do it.

Agree if you do think it is best for you or your children, or if talking it through with your lawyer you decide it is right for you right now, and that you need to sort some things out for yourself first before you have that fight.

If you feel that you are being bullied to agree or make that decision right away, you can say to the social worker “I believe that the High Court in Re CA, decided that section 20 consent has to be voluntary and not as a result of pressure, and that my human rights could be breached if I was cajoled into that agreement”

And “It isn’t that I am not cooperating, but I think a decision about whether my children should be removed is a very big one, and I don’t agree that right now. I’d want to see all of the evidence and have my own legal advice before I thought about it”

What if the police are there?

If the police are there, all of these discussions become much more serious. The police do have the power to take the children away, under Police Protection. That lasts for 72 hours, after which time the social workers have to either get a Court order, or your agreement to the children being in care, or a Court order.

So you would have a right to challenge and fight to get the children back in 72 hours, but you obviously want to avoid that happening if at all possible.

So firstly, again keep calm. Shouting, yelling, screaming, throwing things, being aggressive are all things that make the police more likely to use that power. Try not to give them any excuse.

Here are the magic words, if the police say “we are going to take your child into police protection” or something similar.

“Officer, I’m not being difficult, but I see that you have come with the social worker, which means social services are already involved. And as the High Court said in Re CA 2012, where that is the case, the social worker ought to go to Court to seek an order from the Court, so my human rights aren’t breached by the police or social services. And you will know from the Liverpool case that the police shouldn’t just take a child into police protection to save the social worker the trouble of going to court. And so you should only take the children into police protection if the risks are so great that they can’t be kept safe until the case is heard in Court. I won’t do anything silly and I won’t run away. I will go to Court and the Court will decide. If you want, you can watch me with the kids, or they can go to (my mother/aunt Beryl/whoever) until the Court case starts, then you know everything will be fine.”

That may well put the fear of god into them. It will probably make them think “God, I don’t know anything about the law on this, but this person seems to, and the High Court say we shouldn’t do this”

And you won’t have said anything that isn’t (a) true and (b) fair. No threats, no shouting. Just a reminder that the police aren’t supposed to do social workers dirty work for them, unless there is evidence that the children won’t be safe with you even for an hour whilst the social worker gets a Court hearing sorted out.

The case I am most pleased about this year

 

I’ve been waiting for this one for a long time, the Court of Appeal decision that it is perfectly lawful for the Court to make a wardship order as an alternative to a Care Order, where the child’s accommodation can be dealt with by s20.

 

I blogged about the first instance decision on this case here :-

 

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/07/30/forensic-ferrets-or-standing-in-the-way-of-beyond-parental-control/

 

And the long and the short of it was that the child had a reactive attachment disorder and the placement with her adoptive parents had broken down as a result. The child had been accommodated, and all were agreed that rehabilitation was not possible, but an argument ensued about the nature of the order. The LA sought a Care Order, and the child’s parents sought wardship, arguing that the LA’s shabby conduct towards them meant that they could not be trusted to hold the lion’s share of PR.  It was very clear from the judgment that the original judge had a great deal sympathy with the parents case and resolved most of the factual disputes in their favour. He said that wardship would be the best order, but that he was prohibited in doing so by s100, specifcially the prohibition on making a child a ward of Court where that required the LA to accommodate the child, and made a Care Order.  

 

Following my blog post, I was contacted by the MacKenzie friend assisting the parents in their appeal, who was a thoroughly nice chap, and I gave a tiny bit of help on the skeleton, and together with Ms SuesspiciousMinds helped put them in touch with some barristers who were willing to take on their case pro bono  (The LSC having scandalously decided that they should not be funded for the appeal – which they WON, which surely suggests that it had some merit?)

I am delighted that justice triumphed in this case, I look forward to seeing the whole judgment, and the parents, who have been treated very badly by the LA here, have been extremely kind in their thanks.

 

I also understand that as a result, this child, who was in massive need of therapeutic support has finally started to receive some, which is far more important than the law.

 

When I started this blog I thought it might one day help a lawyer and save them a bit of research, or that it might stir a memory in Court and allow someone to recall that “There’s a case about this”,  but I never dreamt that it would actually help a real person in even a small way. So I am chuffed to bits.  

E (A CHILD) (2012)

 

 

CA (Civ Div) (Thorpe LJ, Rimer LJ, Baron J) 22/11/2012

FAMILY LAW – LOCAL GOVERNMENT

CARE ORDERS : CHILDREN : COURTS’ POWERS AND DUTIES : RESIDENTIAL ACCOMMODATION : WARDS OF COURT : WARDSHIP : CHILD ACCOMMODATED UNDER S.20 OF THE CHILDREN ACT 1989 : WHETHER S.100(2)(B) OF THE CHILDREN ACT 1989 PREVENTS CHILD BEING MADE WARD OF COURT : CHILDREN ACT 1989 s.100, s.20, s.100(3), s.100(2), s.100(2)(b), s.100(2)(a) : FPR PD 12D INHERENT JURISDICTION (INCLUDING WARDSHIP) PROCEEDINGS 2010

 

A court was not prevented by the Children Act 1989 s.100 from making a child a ward of court where that child was accommodated pursuant to s.20.

 

The court was required to determine whether it was prevented by the Children Act 1989 s.100 from making a child (E) a ward of court where E was accommodated under s.20.

E had been voluntarily accommodated by the local authority under s.20. The judge in the hearing below had to choose between making E the subject of a care order, as sought by the first respondent local authority, no order at all, or a wardship order. In making that decision the judge noted that s.100(3) prevented the local authority from making an application for wardship without the leave of the court, and that if E’s parents, the appellants, wished to issue wardship proceedings they would face the obstacle of s.100(2) . The judge concluded that for the same reasons in K (Children with Disabilities: Wardship), Re [2011] EWHC 4031 (Fam), [2012] 2 F.L.R. 745, a wardship order offered more than a care order, but that were it not for s.100(2) he would have made E a ward of the court. He also stated that notwithstanding Re K and Re F (Mental Health Act Guardianship) [2001] FLR 192, he did not have jurisdiction to make E a ward of court given that she was accommodated pursuant to s.20. In light of that, the judge made a care order ruling that no order at all would have been an even worse outcome.

The appellants submitted, in reliance on Re K and FPR PD 12D, that it could not be the case that s.100(2)(b) rendered it impossible for a wardship order to co-exist with the accommodation of a child pursuant to s.20. The local authority submitted that Re K was of little assistance as it could not be stated authoritatively that the accommodation of the children considered therein was voluntary accommodation; they might have been accommodated under another statutory provision. It further contended in reliance on note 3A-1930 in a handbook on the operation of the Children Act 1989, that FPR PD 12D was erroneous in law.

HELD: The local authority’s submissions were not as persuasive as those of the appellants. In respect of Re K, it was more likely that the accommodation of the children therein had been made under s.20, Re K considered. It was very unlikely that the court had not had proper regard to the statutory limitations stated within s.100. The suggestion that FPR PD 12D had been written in error was bold given the care taken in drafting such guidelines. The note referenced did not support the local authority’s argument, not least because it was directed at s.100(2)(a) and not s.100(2)(b). The effect of s.100 was to prevent a court from making any order which had the effect of requiring a child to be placed into care or under local authority supervision. That outcome could only be achieved by going through the court’s inherent jurisdiction. There was nothing either explicitly or implicitly stated within s.100 which prevented a wardhsip order being made where a child was not required to be accommodated but was voluntarily accommodated. If agreement for accommodation ceased, the court would not be taken to be in a position to require the local authority to accommodate or supervise a child. The judge had not been prevented from making the order that he thought was more likely to address E’s welfare needs. Accordingly, the care order was set aside and replaced with a wardship order.

Appeal allowed

Counsel:
For the appellant: Martin Downs (Pro bono)
For the first respondent local authority: Lorna Meyer QC, Elizabeth McGrath
For the Guardian: Elizabeth Walker

Solicitors:
For the first respondent local authority: In-house solicitor
For the Guardian: Lloyds

“I need two volunteers – you, and you” – how ‘voluntary’ is voluntary accommodation?

A consideration of the High Court decision in CA (A Baby), Re [2012] EWHC 2190 (Fam) (30 July 2012)  and whether it is now legitimate for a social worker to ask a mother to agree voluntary accommodation of a baby.  (answer, probably not)

 

I think it would not be unreasonable to describe this case as being to section 20 what Re X was to EPOs.

 

The case can be found here :-

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2012/2190.html

 

Much of the case relates to a factual determination of applications for Care and Placement Orders, but the important bit of wider import can be found in the passages dealing with the mother’s case that her human rights had been breached by the Local Authority effectively pressuring her into agreeing section 20 voluntary accommodation of her child.

 

As far as I am aware, this is the first case dealing with the vexed issue of whether someone has genuinely agreed section 20 accommodation, and whether when the LA effectively pitch up and say “You’ve got to agree to accommodate” there is actually any element of choice involved.

23. Substantial discussions took place on the first day of the hearing (and had of course been in train for some time) which resulted in the local authority conceding the mother’s claim under Section 7 of the 1998 Act. The substance is recorded in the recitals to the order but in effect acknowledge two matters: first, that a Section 20 consent should not have been sought on 1st February 2012; and secondly, that such a removal was not a proportionate response to the risks that then existed. In the event the local authority accepts breaches of the Article 8 rights of both mother and child. The Order with its recitals is annexed to and should be read in conjunction with this judgment

24. The mother, in discussion about damages, asked that they be applied to the costs of her receiving the therapeutic input that has long been advised. The parties have agreed the payment of damages and other provisions which all accept amount to ‘just satisfaction’ of both these claims. It is important to stress that nothing in the subsequent discussion of Section 20 agreements or indeed anything else in this judgment is intended to impugn (nor should it be so read) the propriety of that resolution of the Human Rights claim to which indeed the court (since a minor is a party) specifically gives its approval.

 

So, that’s already quite a big deal – the Court (and the parties) accepting that there would be circumstances in which the LA seeking a section 20 agreement and accommodating the child as a result would be a breach of the mother’s article 8 rights and compensation of some kind is payable.

[Going back to my overarching theme of the law of unintended consequences, I hope HMCS are aware of the deluge of Emergency Protection Order applications that might flow from this sort of decision, as these s20 arrangements are often a stopgap or bridge to get into Court for an ICO hearing, which is now seemingly no longer an option]

It is important to note that there were genuine doubts about the mother’s capacity to agree to section 20 accommodation, as a result of her significant learning difficulties. At the time that the agreement was sought, the mother was also being asked about consenting to medical treatment (for herself, which would be life-saving) and to pain relief including morphine (for herself).

There must obviously have been some reservations about whether the mother was in a position to give valid agreement to accommodate the child under s20 of the Children Act 1989, but the Court go beyond that, and into a discussion of whether a Local Authority can properly invite a parent to give s20 consent if the circumstances are not such that a Court would authorise separation, before concluding that they cannot.

Obviously, that’s quite a big deal, and is something fresh in law. A parent can still ask for s20 accommodation, for whatever reason, but if a Local Authority is asking a parent to agree to it, they run the risk of a human rights financial claim if they did not, at that time, have the sort of evidence that would persuade a Court to sanction removal/separation.

  Prior to this case, as a matter of strict law, the Local Authority did not need to even have reasonable grounds to believe that the threshold criteria are made out, let alone that there was a reasonable prospect of persuading a Court to sanction separation, in order to ASK a parent to agree to s20 accommodation.

I think that there are plenty of cases – the obvious type being a mother who has previously had four or five children removed, but where the concerns are neglect-based rather than a risk of physical harm, where obtaining an EPO would be difficult and usually the first question asked by the LA lawyer of the social worker is ‘is mum willing to agree to s20 accommodation’ – it seems to me that asking that question now carries with it a degree of risk.

 

(The emboldening of key passages is author’s own)

 

27. However, the use of Section 20 is not unrestricted and must not be compulsion in disguise. In order for such an agreement to be lawful, the parent must have the requisite capacity to make that agreement. All consents given under Section 20 must be considered in the light of Sections 1-3 of the Mental Capacity Act 2005.

28. Moreover, even where there is capacity, it is essential that any consent so obtained is properly informed and, at least where it results in detriment to the giver’s personal interest, is fairly obtained. That is implicit in a due regard for the giver’s rights under Articles 6 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

29. Having made those observations, it is necessary specifically to consider how that may operate in respect of the separation of mother and child at the time of birth. The balance of this judgment is essentially limited to that situation, the one that arose in this case, though some observations will have a more general application.

30. It is to be assumed (as was the fact in this case) that there were reasonable grounds for believing that the child and mother should be separated and that the officers of the authority honestly believed that there were such reasonable grounds. In those circumstances a removal could be lawfully effected in one of four ways under the 1989 Act: by agreement under Section 20, by emergency protection order under Section 44, by the police under Section 46 or under an interim care order pursuant to Section 38. This range of options was considered by the Court of Appeal in A – v – East Sussex C.C. and Another [2010] 2FLR 1596. That case was not concerned with a removal at birth but it does stress the need for minimum intervention and the need to work in partnership with parents.

31. There is reasonably clear authority in respect of the compulsive powers under the Act. It is clear that court orders are to be preferred to administrative action and so Section 44 is accorded primacy over Section 46 – see Langley -v- Liverpool C.C. and Another [2006] 1WLR 375 especially per Dyson LJ at paragraphs 35-40. The regime and criteria for the use of Section 44 is fully set out in ‘X’ Council -v- B [2005] 1FLR 341 and X (Emergency Protection Orders) [2006] 2FLR 701 both approved by the Court of Appeal in A (Supra). The Court of Appeal have repeatedly returned to the subject of removal under an interim care order; for example in Re G (Interim Care Order) [2011] 2FLR 955 the authorities are reviewed and the conclusion reached that the court must consider whether the child’s safety requires removal and whether removal is proportionate in the light of the risk of leaving the child where she was.

32. On the facts of this case, it is most unlikely that any order would have been granted on 1st February. In saying that, it is of course accepted that had either the hospital required the discharge of the child or had the mother tried to procure it, an order would no doubt have been made. As it was, the mother was unable to leave and the hospital were not requiring discharge and it is probable that they would not have done so at least until the mother was fit for discharge.

33. In those circumstances the child was in a place of safety in hospital. All parties accept that in consequence the police would have had no power to remove under Section 46 and no order would have been granted under Section 44. Moreover, given the pre-birth plan and the mother’s co-operation in hospital, it is hard to see how immediate removal could have been justified let alone actually authorised under an interim care order.

34. Although many local authorities have policies and internal guidance in place in respect of post birth removals, the researches of very experienced leading counsel have not uncovered specific guidance in respect of the use of Section 20. There is none in publicly available guidance nor in any reported decision of the court. Since this removal, which would not have been sanctioned by a court, was in fact effected by consent, it is perhaps not surprising that the court is being asked to consider the proper ambit of Section 20 in this specific context.

35. It is necessary to state one obvious point which does not arise in this case but which, if not stated, will at least be thought by those inherently suspicious of local authority power: namely that it can never be permissible to seek agreement to do that which would not be authorised by order soley because it is known, believed or even suspected that no such authorisation would be given and in order to circumvent that position. That would breach all requirements of good faith and of fairness.

36. As I have already said, however, there will be cases where it is perfectly proper to seek agreement to immediate post-birth accommodation. Three obvious examples occur: first, where the mother’s intention always has been and remains to have the child placed for adoption; secondly where a parent has always accepted that the child must be removed and has consistently expressed a willingness to consent (but not of course just to acquiesce); and thirdly, where a parent whether by reason of supervening physical health or personal circumstance positively seeks accommodation of the child by social services. There will of course be others and the right to exercise parental responsibility by requesting accommodation under Section 20 and the local authority’s powers of response under Section 20(4) must be respected.

37. However, and whatever the context, Section 20 agreements are not valid unless the parent giving consent has capacity so to do. It is important to note that by Section 1(2) of the 2005 Act a person is to be presumed to have capacity unless it is established that he lacks it. Moreover, the effect of Section 1(4) is to prevent inferences of incapacity from the making of unwise decisions. Incapacity must be due on a “…impairment of, or disturbance in the functioning of the mind or brain” – Section 2(1). Capacity is issue and situation specific. It follows that not only may a person have capacity to make one decision but not another but also may have capacity at one time to make the very decision in respect of which he lacks capacity at another.

38. That can be seen in the context of this case. The fact that the mother could make decisions about surgery and pain relief does not indicate that she could make decisions about the removal of her child. Again the fact that before the birth or sometime after the birth she could make decisions about removal does not mean she could on the day of birth. This latter factor (the impact of the birth itself) is the basis on which Parliament enacted for example Section 52(3) of the 2002 Act in respect of adoption and Section 54(7) of the Human Fertilisation Act 2008 in respect of surrogacy.

39. Capacity is not always an easy judgment to make, and it is usually to be made by the person seeking to rely on the decision so obtained. Sometimes it will be necessary to seek advice from carers and family; occasionally a formal medical assessment may be required; always it will be necessary to have regard to Chapter 4 of the Code of Practice under the 2005 Act. Assistance is, however, to be found in Section 3 of the Act which provides by subsection (1) that a person is unable to make a decision if he is unable – a) to understand the information relevant to the decision, b) to retain that information, c) to use or weigh that information as part of the process of making the decision, or d) to communicate his decision… 4) The information relevant to a decision includes information about the reasonably foreseeable consequence of – a) deciding one way or the other, or b) failing to make the decision.

40. Applying that to the facts of the case, the social worker was the person finally to decide capacity and she had the views of the midwives. The key judgments to be made were probably the mother’s ability to use or weigh information surrounding removal and whether she understood that, if she refused, the child would stay in hospital with her. The first of those illustrates why a decision to agree to life-sustaining surgery is wholly different to a decision to consent to removal of the child. It is also clear that her attention was not called to the second matter at all.

 

A reading of paragraph 36 suggests (and there may be other interpretations) that separating a baby from a parent shortly after birth by way of section 20 ought to be a decision driven by the parent (that they genuinely want the child to be accommodated), and not the Local Authority seeking to cajole, influence, persuade (or if you’re cynical) browbeat, the parent into it.

 

And by implication, that such a separation, if the parent is not actively driving it, ought not to be done by s20, but instead by a decision of the Court.

One might think, very fairly, that this is right and proper, and that a parent ought not to be separated from their child because they are weak-willed or haven’t twigged that they have the right to say no when being pushed towards agreeing s20 accommodation by a social worker.

I find it a little hard to disagree with that, to be honest, but it is worth noting that this is quite a departure from where the law was prior to this decision.

Previously, it was incumbent on the parent to not say ‘yes’ to the accommodation being proposed, and for the LA to either issue or allow the child to remain with the parent. NOW, it will be incumbent on the LA to issue if they want separation and to tread extraordinarily carefully in any conversation about s20 accommodation for a baby.

It seems to me, from reading this judgment, that it might be lawful for a social worker to ask (with a huge amount of care, to explain what it means and what the possible consequences are and that the parent can say no) “do you want to voluntary accommodate your child?”  but NOT  anything like “I think it would be a good idea for your child to stay in foster care, do you agree?”

 

(I suspect that to get the wording bullet-proof on this, you’ll need something like the Miranda waiver so beloved of American cop shows… and that it will be so cumbersome that most social workers will just decide not to ask the question)

I think that this passage in particular, will be vital reading for social workers, local authority lawyers, out of hours workers, and those who might be representing parents either in the hours after the baby is born, or when a case pitches up to Court where the parents ‘agreed’ separation.

46. The following can perhaps be offered as the more important aspects –

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