Children In Need

July 19th, 2018

The Appeal to the Supreme Court in Williams v Hackney LBC (2018) UKSC 37 concerned the limits of a local authority’s powers and duties to provide accommodation for children in need under s 20 of the Children Act 1989 (“CA”). The Supreme Court holds that there had been a lawful basis for the children’s continued accommodation under s 20.Compulsory intervention by a local authority requires the sanction of a Court process. No Court Order is required for the authority to provide accommodation for children in need under s 20 CA. However, it is subject to the right under s 20(7) for a person with parental responsibility for the child, who is willing and able to provide accommodation for him or arrange for accommodation for him, to object, and to the provision in s 20(8) that ‘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’.

If a parent delegates the exercise of his or her parental responsibility for a child to the local authority under s 20 CA, such delegation must be real and voluntary. The best way to ensure this is to inform the parent fully of their rights under s 20, although delegation can be real and voluntary without being ‘informed’. No such delegation is required where the local authority steps into the breach to exercise its powers under s 20 where there is no-one with parental responsibility for the child, the child is lost or abandoned, or the parent is not offering to look after the child. In those circumstances active delegation is not required. If a parent with unrestricted parental responsibility objects at any time pursuant to s 20(7), the local authority may not accommodate the child under s 20, regardless of the suitability of the parent or of the accommodation which the parent wishes to arrange. It is not a breach of s 20 to keep a child in accommodation for a long period but a local authority must also think of the longer term and consider initiating care proceedings in order to fulfil its other duties under the CA, and to avoid breaches of the child’s or the parents’ rights under Article 8 of the ECHR.

In the present case, where the s 20 arrangements replaced compulsory police protection under s 46 without the children returning home in the meantime, the focus was not on the appellants’ delegation of parental responsibility to the Council, but on their rights under subsections 20(7) and 20(8). Entering into a safeguarding agreement was a matter of good practice, although it was important that it did not give the impression that the parents had no right to object or to remove the children. The lawfulness of the s 20 accommodation depended on whether the appellants’ actions amounted to an unequivocal request for the children to be returned. The letters from the appellants’ solicitors could not be read as an objection or as a request for immediate return: the solicitors were sensibly trying to achieve the return of the children as quickly as possible on a collaborative basis rather than push the Council into issuing care proceedings.

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