[There are some VERY IMPORTANT rulings about section 20 in this judgment, which was in the High Court. Practitioners, particularly social workers or those who advise social workers are urged to read it in full. I will put a huge IMPORTANT flag on the key passages]
This story came to my attention via The Guardian
The bare bones of this story were that a Hackney family had eight children removed from their care by the police, that the main issue was home conditions that could be fixed very quickly, and that the parents successfully sued Hackney under a variety of methods (including the one that’s always popular Beneath the Line here with commenters, “misfeasance in public office” ) and won on the Human Rights Act part of the case, receiving £10,000 compensation each.
The report is good, clear and compelling, and accurate. [The author has clearly read the judgment and quotes the Judge and captures the essence of the story]
That led me to the judgment, which was not in the Family Court but in the Chancery part of the High Court.
Williams and Another v London Borough of Hackney
- If ever there was a case illustrating the challenges that face children, parents, public authorities, and the courts when concerns are raised about the safety and welfare of children it is this. A relatively trivial incident on 5 July 2007, followed by an allegation made by a young child in potential trouble, led to the exposure of issues about the upbringing of a large family in respect of whom there had been no previous concerns. Eight children, including a young baby, were removed from their parents’ care and distributed to foster homes. A swift consideration of the welfare issues concluded that if some simple improvements were made to their home, the children could return home. Yet it was some 2 months before the children returned to their parents, after experiencing a variety of foster placements, some of which were of dubious quality. A criminal investigation led to a 20-count indictment against the parents, but in the end, 2 years later, no evidence was offered and the parents were acquitted. The parents’ complaints about the handling of their case by the defendants were considered in a complaints process over a period of nearly six years culminating in a final decision of the Local Government Ombudsman, issued on 22 April 2013. In spite of their complaints being upheld in part, and the exoneration of their character in the Crown Court, the claimants believe their grievances have not been properly addressed and therefore bring these proceedings, ending in this trial, eight years after this unfortunate incident started. Fortunately it is not my task to adjudicate on more than a small fraction of what has occurred, but the overall picture is not a happy one.
- The claimants bring this claim against the London Borough of Hackney [“Hackney”] in their own right, and not on behalf of any of their children. They accept that the authorities acted lawfully in the initial action of taking their children into foster care under the authority of what has been described as police protection order. However, they claim damages for what they say were the unlawful actions of the defendant authority and its officers in keeping the children of the claimants in authority controlled foster care after the expiry of the effect of the police order. The causes of action alleged are misfeasance in public office, breach of statutory duty, negligence, religious discrimination and breach of the parents’ Article 8 human rights. The defendant denies liability in any of these causes of action.
The next bit, which explains how the children came into care, does throw into the mix a brand new element, that there were concerns about physical abuse of the children, not just a dirty or untidy house
The claimants, John and Adenike Williams, have been married for 24 years. They have 8 children whose ages at the time of the matters about which they complain ranged from 8 months to 14 years. All the children lived at home, and no concerns were raised about the manner in which their parents were caring for them until one of them was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting on 5th July 2007. This child was said to have told the police that he had been beaten by his father with a belt, as an explanation for a bruise on his face. The police visited the family home and were of the opinion that it was not in a fit state to be accommodation for the children. They alerted the defendant to their concerns. The police also initiated a Police Protection Order under section 46 of the Children Act 1989, and the defendants made emergency arrangements to accommodate them in foster homes. The police order authorised these arrangements for 72 hours. On 6th July, in circumstances I will have to examine in some detail, the parents signed a form of agreement which the defendants assert authorised them to continue to accommodate the children away from their parents, an assertion the claimants dispute. The children did not in fact return to live with their parents until 11th September 2007. It is right to record at the outset of this judgment, that, although the claimants were eventually charged with various offences relating to their treatment of the children, following strong observations made by a Crown Court judge, no evidence was offered, and a not guilty verdict was entered on all the charges.
So, firstly, the period of time that the children spent in foster care, from 6th July 2007 until 11th September 2007, was purportedly under a written section 20 agreement. That’s important, because obviously social workers themselves have no powers to remove children or keep them away from a parent. They can only do so if the parents agree (under section 20 of the Children Act 1989) or there is a Court order sanctioning this.
We will come later on to whether the parents had agreed section 20 accomodation (they disputed this)
Secondly, the physical injury and the allegation that father had hit the child with a belt. I was interested to find this in the judgment:-
- On 5 July 2007 one of the Williams children was interviewed by the police. The child was reported said to have alleged that Mr Williams “regularly beats him and his siblings and had reported that [the child] had been beaten the previous evening as he had gone to the shop without his permission to buy some lollipops.” It was also reported that the child had attributed a mark below the eye to the father using a belt.
- The legality and justification, if any, for what was done following that report does not depend on whether the allegations made by the child were true but on the appropriateness of the reaction of the authorities to the potential risks to the children implicit in them. However the truth of the allegations of violence was put in issue.
- In examining the evidence before me it is important for me to bear in mind and record in this public judgment the conclusions which HH Judge Paul Kennedy reached in the Crown Court having examined the evidence before him in the criminal proceedings brought against the parents for assault, cruelty and child neglect. Having read the file, he urged the Crown to offer no evidence. In his remarks, made on 16 September 2008 he said this:These are persons of good character, who faced the quite enormous task of bringing up 8 young children in an overcrowded home. That they loved their children, that they wanted the best for them, that there were determined that the future held more for them than for what Mrs Williams described as “street kids” has never been in doubt and shines out from Mrs Williams’s interview. Whilst there is little doubt that conditions at home were chaotic, the Williams have accepted the help they were offered and, within a remarkably short time, have turned around a difficult and dangerous situation to one where all departments of Social Services are content and positive about the future.
Following these observations no evidence was offered and the judge entered a verdict of Not Guilty on all counts.
- There was much evidence in these proceedings to confirm the view arrived at by the learned judge, and I am absolutely satisfied that Mr and Mrs Williams were loving parents who wanted only the best for their children. They had brought them up in what must have been challenging circumstances without reproach or concern until July 2007. Their anxiety and distress exhibited when they were separated from them, their reactions to the ordeals their children endured over the next few months, were as clear in their demeanour in the witness box in this hearing as they were from the contemporaneous documentation and the evidence of the two children who gave evidence. I have absolutely no doubt that the claimants were and remain loving and committed parents determined to do their best for all their children. Their sense of sadness at not being able to be reconciled with the child who made the allegations triggering the authorities’ concerns was palpable.
- Mr Williams denies that he beat his child as alleged in the police report. He told me that there was a troubled relationship with this child which, sadly, has never subsequently been repaired. He agreed that he did smack the children, but in the case of three of them on only a few occasions. In relation to the child who had made the allegation, Mr Williams said he had never smacked, or used a belt to smack, the child in the face. To my mind somewhat strangely, Mr Williams told me that he did not “recollect” punching this child in the face, an allegation made by this child to doctors in relation to a later incident in November 2009. In relation to a row that occurred in 2010 he said that he could not remember if the child had any resulting injuries, although he could not see any. He used similar expressions claiming a lack of memory on several occasions about incidents which appeared from his descriptions and the records of them to be dramatic. Of course to say something cannot be recollected can merely be a form of denial, but I sensed here that there was a degree of equivocation in Mr Williams’s answers. There was, however evidence before me that he did hit his children in the course of disciplining them. One of the adult children who gave evidence before me agreed that this was so. I was told by this witness that Mr Williams used a belt “sometimes but not always” if the children “really misbehaved, [were] really really bad”. The witness added, “sometimes he went a bit too far”. When I asked this witness what was meant by “misbehaving” in this context I was told this meant “arguing with mum, messing about outside or doing things repeatedly – that is when the belt came out“. Very much in favour of Mr and Mrs Williams is that whatever the nature of the discipline handed out certainly the two children who gave evidence clearly remained very close to their parents. There is no evidence that with the one exception described, any of the other children have a less close relationship.
- I am satisfied on the evidence before me that Mr Williams did administer what he believed to be justifiable discipline to his children, which included on occasion the use of a belt. It is distinctly possible that a belt was used on or shortly before 5 July, although the circumstances and the extent to which it was used cannot now be reliably established. The only relevance of these matters is that in the course of the involvement of the defendant’s officers with this family they would have seen an attitude towards discipline similar to that which I have seen in this court. It is this sort of factor which persuades me that the defendant was justified in considering that the allegations were evidence of a risk to the safety of the children which they could not ignore in determining whether to exercise their statutory powers. This is not in any way to contradict the very positive conclusions that both HH Judge Kennedy and I have reached about the general character of both claimants.
Whilst the Judge therefore found that these were loving parents who only wanted the best for their children, he did also find that the father had by way of justifiable discipline hit his children with a belt.
How bad was the house when the police visited?
- In a statement for the police made on 27 July Mrs McLaughlin stated that she was “immediately struck by the chaotic, disorganised, dirty, unhygienic and filthy environment of the home.” It was her judgment that placements were required for the children “as I could not leave them in the dangerous and inappropriate environment in which they were living.” The cleanest room, where the TV was placed, had clothes strewn across it; it was dirty and had loose wires across it. The bathroom was extremely dirty; all areas in it were “ingrained with dirt and grease. It appears not to be used.” The toilet was in a similar condition. The mattress in one of the bedrooms was “dirty and rotten with dirty sheets on it“. Clothes were strewn across the room or were in piles against the walls. She stated that she could not find a clean pair or knickers for one of the younger children. The only clean clothes were adult male clothes in the wardrobe, still in their dry cleaning bags. In the kitchen the floor was filthy, and there was “no apparent food in the freezer – only plastic bags.” The cooker was dirty with burnt rice in the grime. She saw no food for the children. In the hallway, which was also dirty, there were loose wires across the floors and sockets hanging from the walls. The children were unkempt with matted hair, and dirty faces and clothes. They were extremely reluctant to engage with the social workers and the two eldest were “hostile“. One child had an apparent skin condition some parts of which were “weeping“. Mrs McLaughlin could find no medication in the home. In her oral evidence she told me that this was one of the worst homes she had ever been in, before or since. A statement made by another social worker on the visiting team, Mark Burgess, was to a similar effect.
- In her evidence to this court Mrs McLaughlin confirmed that she could clearly remember the dry cleaned suits. There was material covering the windows which made it dark. There were clothes piled up on the floor and wires across the room. Thee were bundles of sticks in each room,. The home smelt of urine. A police officer put a key into the grime on the bath “and it swallowed up the key“. The ‘fridge and cooker were very dirty. There was no food apart from a snapper fish in the freezer.
The Judge didn’t believe the allegation about the key (which I think is meant to indiccate the depth of the grime on the bath) , but that the photographs did show that the house was not in a state which was suitable to accommodate children of any age
- I consider that Mrs McLaughlin’s recollection of the state of the property has been affected by the passage of time, and in some limited respects is unintentionally exaggerated. For example, I doubt that it would be literally possible for a key to be “swallowed” in grime as she suggested. Furthermore Ms Toal’s recollection of what was reported with regard to the availability of clean underwear was that it had been difficult to find any rather than that there was none. Nonetheless the material to which I have just referred persuades me that, bluntly, the premises were in an appalling state. It is inevitable that social workers must as part of their duties see many homes which are less than perfect in their cleanliness and safety, but it is evident to me that the concerns expressed in the contemporaneous records were not exaggerated for forensic purposes but were genuine and substantially true. It is understandable that caring parents like Mr and Mrs Williams find it hard to accept the full extent of the deficiencies that have been described, but I cannot accept that the state as described represented a transient phenomenon caused by a short term illness. If there were any doubt it is laid to rest by the photographs produced to me by the claimants. These were put to witnesses, but their provenance was not a matter of formal evidence and is therefore uncertain. It appears, however, that they may have been taken by the police. It is possible they were taken after some, perhaps preliminary, attempt, had been made to start remedying the deficiencies. Nonetheless they show very concerning conditions. If there is more food in the freezer than the snapper just mentioned, it is contained in unwholesome looking bags. The fridge itself is filthy, as is the cooker and various other surfaces. There are indeed hazardous wires on the floor, even if they are not across the entire floor. There are piles of items in various places, and a tied bundle of sticks is clearly visible. Accordingly I am entirely satisfied that on 5 July 2007 the claimant’s home was not a suitable environment in which to accommodate children of any age.
- That the conditions in the home may not always have been unsuitable for children in this way received some support from the information the defendants obtained from the school attended by four of the children that they always looked clean and tidy. They had a 100% attendance and punctuality record, and there were no other concerns expressed. However this reassurance cannot outweigh the strength of the evidence of the actual observations made on 5 July by professional social workers whose findings, subject to the qualification mentioned above, have been, I am satisfied, substantially accurately described to me by Mrs McLaughlin. Further it was clearly reasonable for her and her colleagues to believe that such a state of affairs could not have come about during a few days or even weeks previously.
So it was clearly right for the police to have removed these children, and for an investigation to take place.
It is rightly not in dispute that the circumstances existing on 5 July justified immediate action to safeguard the welfare of the children and, in particular, it is accepted that the police decision to invoke their powers to protect children under section 46 of the Children Act 1989 was justified. A serious allegation of physical abuse had been made which clearly required investigation. The police arrested the parents and therefore those with parental responsibility were not in a position while in custody to look after the children. I am satisfied that the children presented as possibly neglected. The home was clearly in an unsuitable state to accommodate the children, even if an adult to care for them had been identified. However the relevance of these concerns extends beyond the immediate action taken by the police: it forms the background to the consideration of the subsequent actions of the defendants to which I must now turn.
Could the children have been placed with relatives, rather than coming into foster care?
I find it surprising that there is no contemporaneous record of the steps taken to look for alternative accommodation. However I note that in spite of the assertion made now by the claimants that family members were willing to take the children in, no such suggestion was made in the correspondence sent by their solicitor to which I will have to refer for other reasons below. Given the clear wish, indeed desperation, of the claimants to have their children back in the family rather than in separate and in some cases what they believed to be distinctly undesirable foster homes, I consider the absence of such a suggestion at the time inconsistent with any realistic chance of one or more family members having been willing or able to take on the challenging task at short notice of accommodating all or part of this large family. I conclude that throughout the period with which I am concerned no realistic alternatives were available, and that the defendants did probably take sufficient steps on 5 July 2007 to satisfy themselves of that position at the time.
The section 20 “agreement”
- On 6 July Mrs and Mrs Williams signed a document carrying the title “Safeguarding Agreement in respect of [their eight children]“. It was also signed by Ciara Toal. The circumstances in which it was signed, and its effect have been the subject of significant dispute between the parties and I must therefore set out what happened in some detail. Where there has been a significant dispute of fact I shall make my factual findings clear.
- After reciting the parties to it [the claimants and Hackney Children and Young Person’s Services] the “agreement” continued as follows This document was drawn up on Friday 6th of July 2007 and is a Safeguarding Agreement concerning the child mentioned above.
This Safeguarding Agreement was drawn up in relation to all of the children. Although the agreement is not legally binding, it may have significance, should there be any court procedures in the future.
We, Mr & Mrs Williams parents to all the above children, agree to the following:
1. That all the children will remain in their foster placements for the present time.
2. When contact takes place you will encourage the children to return to their placements and ensure [sic] them that this is a safe place.
3. That we will behave appropriately while contact is taking place, ie assure the children that we love and care for them, show them affection.
4. That we will not discuss with any of the children what has happened.
5. To continue to comply with Hackney Children’s Social Care.
In conclusion Hackney Children’s Social Care will seek legal advice with a view to protecting the children if it is found that parents are not complying with the contents of this Safeguarding Agreement.
That wording clearly is a section 20 agreement [if a badly drafted one, it does contain agreement to the children remaining in foster care
) and the Judge says that the document is signed. . If the parents had signed that, and had understood what they were signing then there’s no real case here. The home conditions were unacceptable for children, and it was clearly going to take a bit of time for that to be turned round. If the parents felt that the Local Authority were dragging their feet once the home conditions were good enough, their remedy was to object to section 20 continuing.
So there’s a mystery here, knowing that the Judge did award them compensation. What’s the issue with the section 20 agreement?
By the time this document was signed all the claimants’ children had been placed in foster homes. Mr Williams’s account in his witness statement – supported formally by Mrs Williams in her witness statement – is that after their release from the police station he and his wife went to the defendant’s offices arriving at around 9.30 am. They met Mrs McLaughlin and asked for their children back. She told them that the defendant wanted to inspect the house and if it had been tidied up and cleaned they would return the children. She told them to return to the office at midday. Accordingly, he says, the claimants went home and cleaned and tidied it up. No-one attended to inspect it. On their return the defendant’s office they were met by Mrs McLaughlin and Ms Toal who told them that the police had now issued a Police Protection Order under which the defendant could hold he children for 72 hours. Ms McLaughlin then produced a document in which the defendant said the children would be released after 72 hours, and asked the claimants to sign it. Mr Williams said he wanted to speak to a solicitor before signing a document to which Mrs McLaughlin responded that the claimants should not speak to a solicitor as otherwise they would not get their children back. As the claimants were about to leave Mrs McLaughlin told them that unless they signed a document they would not see their children again. Because they were tired and did not understand what was happening they panicked and signed the document Mrs McLaughlin then said that they could see the children that afternoon. Mr Williams says he made it absolutely clear that the claimants wanted to take their children home but they were misled into signing the “agreement”.
So that’s the allegation, that the section 20 document was signed under duress – and importantly that when the parents said that they wanted to see a solicitor before they signed it, were strongly discouraged from doing so.
The Judge had to decide whether that was the case – not helped because there was not a contemporaneous account of the meeting
In assessing the evidence I have heard on the circumstances surrounding the signing of the so-called section 20 agreement, I have had regard to the fact that the claimants were on any view in a highly distressed and doubtless tired state when they met Mrs McLaughlin and Ms Toal. Their recollection of what they were told is likely to have been clouded by their understandable emotions, and indeed anger, at what had happened. They were vulnerable people without advice facing two officials vested with the powers of the state to take their children away, possibly indefinitely. The claimants were not therefore in an ideal position to understand the complexities of what they were being faced with. On other side, the two social workers were dealing with an unusual and fraught situation. The defendants had as a matter of urgency found themselves having to accommodate eight children, who themselves were showing signs of distress, against a background of apparently serious allegations of physical abuse, and a home which was without doubt at that moment unfit for accommodating children. Considerable, and to my mind laudable, energy had been devoted to inspecting the home and relocating the children in these challenging circumstances. The parents, however caring they wanted to be, were arguably not in a position to offer that care without being in breach of bail conditions. The notes of what happened are almost certainly not complete and understandably the officers’ direct recollection of what was said is also incomplete. However, given all the circumstances, I consider it likely that the claimants have built up a mistaken picture in their minds of what they were told, in part through misunderstanding at the time and in part through their distress at having to relive these events repeatedly over the intervening years. I prefer the account to be gained from the contemporaneous record as supplemented by the evidence of Mrs McLaughlin and Ms Toal where it conflicts with that of the parents. That does leave a number of points of serious concern about the process adopted to which I will return after examining the legal framework under which the consensual accommodation of children by a local authority is meant to occur.
The police bail confuses matters. The parents would have been in breach of their bail conditions if they had asked for and been given the children back.
This is IMPORTANT IMPORTANT IMPORTANT., the Judge here decided that the exisatence of bail conditions preventing a parent caring for a child DOES NOT MEAN that for the purposes of s20 the parent is prevented or incapbel to providing care for the child. The parent would still need to actively consent to s20.
- Police bail
- Bail in this case was granted under the powers accorded to police by section 37 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Conditions may be imposed by virtue of section 47. The person bailed has a right to apply to a magistrates court for a variation of the conditions: section 47 (1E), (1D). The conditions can be varied by the police. Breach of a bail condition entitles the police to re-arrest the bailed person: section 46(1A). Such a breach does not constitute a statutory offence: Regina v Ashley  EWCA Crim 2571,  1 WLR 2057.
- It follows that any attempt by Mr and Mrs Williams to effect the return of their children home would not be an offence, unless, arguably, the conduct amounted to some substantive offence. Therefore the consequences of non-compliance would be most likely limited to a consideration by the police of whether to re-arrest the parents. The most likely immediate reaction to any attempt by the parents to take their children out of foster care would, or should, have been an urgent application by the defendants to the court for one of the available orders authorising them to retain the children in their care. Such an application would of course have enabled the parents to make representations to the court and, potentially give undertakings with regard to their care of the children and their plans for improving the home.
The existance of the bail conditions thus didn’t remove the need for a s20 agreement provided by consent. Why is this IMPORTANT? Because if a parent is arrested and has bail conditions and does not sign a s20 consent, the LA have to issue care proceedings – they can’t rely on the bail conditions themselves. And potentially any case where that HAS happened, could now be a Human Rights claim.
- The parties’ submissions on the validity of the section 20 agreement
- The claimants submit that the defendant had no power to keep their children away from them after the expiry of the PPO, 72 hours after it was made on 5 July 2007, without either a court order of one of the types described above, or the consent of the parents to a consensual arrangement pursuant to section 20. They submit that there was no valid consent obtained on 6 July for a number of reasons:
a. The mother at least lacked the capacity to give such consent because of her mental illness or general distress.
b. Neither parent was fully informed to enable them to fully understand the consequences of their giving a consent, to appreciate the options available, and to be in possession of all the material facts.
c. They were coerced into signing the agreement by the threat of not seeing their children again.
d. They were not told of their right to take their children home at any time
e. There was no indication that the agreement was to have any effect after the expiry of the PPO.
Ready? This next bit is IMPORTANT IMPORTANT IMPORTANT IMPORTANT – the Judge here sets out that a section 20 agreement HAS to convey that the parents have the right to withdraw their consent. He also suggest that the parent needs to be told of their right to take legal advice. That goes further than Hedley J’s case on section 20 (Coventry City Council v C, sometimes called Re CA). Don’t forget that at the time that the decisions happened in this case, Hedley J’s judgment had not been given, and wouldn’t be for another 8 years…
- Capacity for this purpose is equated to capacity as defined in the Mental Capacity Act 2005: see paragraph 37 of Coventry City Council v C [above]. I am satisfied that both Mr and Mrs Williams had the capacity to understand what they were told and the consequences of the decision they were being asked to make. They were distressed, but not so distressed that they lacked the capacity to make decisions. In my judgment this case is far removed from that of the newly delivered mother under consideration in C. Mr and Mrs Williams were able to express their wish to have their children returned as soon as possible, and to challenge the allegations made against them. They were capable of understanding what they were told. That their distress has resulted in their misunderstanding what they were told has more to do with the inadequacy of the information conveyed to them and its communication than their capacity to understand it.
- I do not consider the claimants were fully informed of the matters of which they should have been informed:
a. Bearing in mind the threatening circumstances in which the “Safeguarding Agreement” was offered to the claimants, its form suffered from very similar defects to those described by Tomlinson LJ as being “comical“.
i. On its face the agreement is said to have possible “significance” in court proceedings. The strong inference is that the “significance” would be adverse to the parents’ prospects of seeing their children back home. This is reinforced by the threat of the defendants to seek legal advice in the event of non-compliance by the parents; clearly such advice would be with a view to making an application to the court.
ii. The document makes no reference to the legal basis on which the children are to be accommodated by the defendants. There is therefore no guidance for the parents as to the context of what they are signing.
iii. The document contains only a list of obligations being imposed on the parents, with no reference to any obligations on the part of the defendants. In particular there is no mention of the parents’ legal right to withdraw their consent and require the return of their children.
iv. The parents are required “to comply” with the defendants whatever that means. It has the look of a provision which requires the parents to comply with absolutely anything the defendants might require.
b. There is no persuasive evidence that the parents were expressly told that that they had a right to take their children away from local authority provided accommodation at any time or to object to that provision and I accept that they were not. It is no justification for this omission that the bail condition prohibited unsupervised contact. As was pointed out there could have been a number of solutions, ranging from either the parents or the defendant persuading the police to vary bail to allow alternative accommodation with family and friends if any were identified who could help. There is also an issue about what the police would have done if the children had returned home. Breach of police bail is not an offence and there has been no evidence enabling me – or the claimants – to know what was likely to have happened. It is clear that this issue was not raised or discussed by Mrs McLaughlin and Ms Toal when obtaining the parents’ signatures to the agreement.
c. There is no evidence that they were told, still less encouraged, to seek legal advice before signing the agreement.
d. I agree that there was no clear indication offered as to the effect of the agreement following the expiry of the PPO.
e. While I do not accept that the parents were told, or that the defendants’ officer intended to convey to them, that they would never see their children again if they did not enter the agreement, I do accept that this was what, in their distressed state, the claimants understood.
f. In short the circumstances, combined with the inadequacies of the information conveyed, were such as to amount to the “compulsion in disguise” of the type described by Hedley J in the Coventry case. For the same reasons such agreement or acquiescence as took place was not fairly obtained.
- For these reasons I conclude that on 6 July there was no valid consent obtained from the parents such as to give the defendant authority to accommodate the children under section 20. It is therefore unnecessary to go on to consider the final part of the test, namely whether action under section 20 was a proportionate response to the circumstances facing the defendants at that time. Had I been satisfied that the parents had been fully and fairly informed of all relevant matters and given their consent, which I am not, I would have accepted that the circumstances were such that it would have been proportionate to take action to accommodate the children under section 20. The potential risks to the children posed by the condition of the family home, the parents’ apparent unwillingness to acknowledge the extent of the problem, the allegations of abuse which were under investigation, and, as I find, the absence at that time of any established alternative accommodation would have made such action a reasonable response.
Note that IF the parents had given a valid s20 consent, without the flaws in the process, the Judge was satisfied that on the FACTS of the case keeping the children in foster care until the home conditions were resolved was the right thing to do for them – it was a proportionate outcome. It was the failings of obtaining the s20 agreement – particularly the failure to really convey to the parents that they had a choice not to sign it and that they could withdraw their consent at any time, which sank this Local Authority.
The evidence offered in this case has been considered already. I have found that at material times the defendants were indeed acting outside the statutory authority granted to it by Parliament to interfere with the family life of Mr and Mrs Williams. However they were doing so in the mistaken belief that they had sufficient consent from the parents to authorise their actions under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. They were taking decisions and implementing actions solely for the purpose of protecting children against risks which, on the basis of the information they had, they reasonably believed required protective steps to be taken. It was not disputed that some action was justified as a result of what was found on 6 July. There was at all times a potential for conflict of interest between the children and their need for protection and the parents who were suspected of neglect and abuse. The fact that they were subsequently exonerated of the criminal allegations does not mean there was not a basis for a belief that protective action was required. Therefore I find some difficulty in the distinctions Ms Cooper has sought to persuade me exist between this case and one concerning the actual diagnosis of abuse. Diagnosis and assessment of risk to children is not a one off event, but a continuous process in which the significance of information and the balance of risks has constantly to be reviewed. As the, at times somewhat painful, dissection of decisions and processes in this case has shown, disentangling the rights and wrongs of individual decisions can be complex. It would in my judgment raise the danger of inhibiting authorities from taking steps to safeguard children in difficult cases were they to be open to a minute examination of their every action in a case like this. In short, if there are exceptional cases where there is no conflict justifying an exclusion of cause of action in favour of a parent, this is not one of them. This is not to apply a blanket policy, but to do my best to apply the principles of the common law as determined by the higher courts to the facts of this case.
The Judge deals with the misfeasance in public office claim – as we’ve previously discussed on this blog, a key ingredient is that the action is deliberate, and here the Judge was satisfied that the professionals were operating on the mistaken belief that the parents had validly consented to s20 and that the Council thus had a legal power to keep the children in foster care – they were wrong about that, but it was a genuine belief.
The parents did, however, succeed on the Human Rights Act claim and were awarded £10,000 each.
- I consider that comparable factors are relevant in an Article 8 case generally, and the present case in particular. This was undoubtedly a close family presided over by loving parents. They were extremely distressed by the continued separation from their children and constantly voiced their anxieties in that regard to the defendants. They witnessed the adverse effects of foster care on more than one of their children, one of whom was a baby who was being breast fed. On the other hand, I must bear in mind that the initial separation was justified, and that an investigation of the type which occurred would have taken place in any event. This is not a case of permanent loss or bereavement, and the children were returned in the end.
- Clearly the claimants have not received adequate redress to date. While certain of their complaints were upheld by the complaints process and the Ombudsman, they have received no acknowledgement let alone compensation for the unlawful deprivation of the care of their children for a number of months. Reminding myself that awards of this type should be fairly modest, I consider that the appropriate sum to award to each parent is £10,000 each. It was contended by Ms Cooper that I should award aggravated or exemplary damages, but if I understood her submissions correctly this related to the misfeasance claim which I have rejected. In any event I do not consider that such an award would be appropriate.Conclusion
- For the reasons given judgment will be entered for the claimants in the sum of £10,000 each. I will hear submissions on any further and consequential orders that are said to arise out of this judgment.