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Supreme Court clarifies powers of local authorities under section 20, Children Act 1989

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Mark Twomey QC and Alex Laing acted on behalf of the Association of Lawyers for Children in recent Supreme Court judgment Williams v LB Hackney, [2018] UKSC 37.

This case considers the limits on a local authority’s powers and duties to provide accommodation for children in need under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, without sanction of a court order [para 1]. In particular, what is a local authority to do if parents ask for their accommodated children to be returned, but the local authority still perceives obstacles in doing so? [para 1].

For background, in this case eight children had been removed from a home on the police’s exercise of section 46 of the Children Act 1989. The parents were arrested and interviewed, and afterwards signed a safeguarding agreement following conditions of their bail. The police protection expired days later, and the parents requested return of their children. The local authority, however, refused on the basis that the parents’ bail conditions prevented the children’s return. Two months later, the children were returned to their home after the parents’ bail conditions were varied and the local authority noted changes in their living conditions. Following this, the parents brought a claim against the local authority for negligent breach of statutory duty and breach under the Human Rights Act 1998, among others.

The issue to be heard on appeal to the Supreme Court was whether there was or was not “a lawful basis for the children’s accommodation under section 20 of the 1989 Act once the 72 hours of police protection under section 46 had expired” [para 13].

The Supreme Court’s judgment, delivered by Lady Hale, outlines the circumstances surrounding the section 20 agreement and its contents, and the importance that these agreements do not lead parents to believe they cannot object or remove their children from local authority care at a later date.

Lady Hale determined that, in this case, the parents’ request for the return of their children had not been unequivocal, and as a result, there continued to be a lawful basis for the children to continue to remain accommodated by the local authority under section 20 until their eventual return.

At para 64, the judgment reads, “In sum, there are circumstances in which a real and voluntary delegation of the  exercise  of  parental  responsibility  is  required  for  a  local  authority  to accommodate a child under section 20, albeit not in every case. Parents with parental responsibility always have a qualified right to object and an unqualified right to remove their children at will (subject to any court orders about where the child is to live). Section 20 gives local authorities no compulsory powers over parents or their children and must not be used in such a way as to give the impression that it does. It is obviously good practice in every case that parents should be given clear and accurate information, both orally and in writing, both as to their own rights and as to the responsibilities of the local authority, before a child is accommodated under section 20 or as soon as practicable thereafter.”

The full judgment can be read here: https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2017-0037-judgment.pdf

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