Level of Support

July 13th, 2016

In R (C, T, M and U) v Southwark LBC (2016) EWCA Civ 707 the claimants challenged the lawfulness of the accommodation and the level of financial support provided by Southwark Council to a family who have no right of recourse to public funds.  Three issues were considered by the Court of Appeal: (i) Whether the Council had an unlawful policy or practice of setting financial support to those seeking assistance under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 (“CA 1989”) at the level of child benefit in the circumstance that they otherwise had no right of recourse to public funds; (ii) Whether the Council had an unlawful policy or practice of setting financial support to those seeking assistance under Section 17 CA 1989 at the level of payments which would have been made to asylum seekers or failed asylum seekers by the Secretary of State under Sections 4 and 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (“IAA 1999) in the circumstance that they otherwise had no recourse to public funds; and (iii) Whether the Council breached the appellants’ Article 8 ECHR rights because it provided them with financial support at a level less than that which it knew was necessary to prevent breach and, if so, whether the appellants are entitled to damages in respect of the breach.

The Court of Appeal observed:-

“12.It is settled law that the section 17 scheme does not create a specific or mandatory duty owed to an individual child. It is a target duty which creates a discretion in a local authority to make a decision to meet an individual child’s assessed need. The decision may be influenced by factors other than the individual child’s welfare and may include the resources of the local authority, other provision that has been made for the child and the needs of other children (see, for example R (G) v Barnet London Borough Council [2003] UKHL 57, [2004] 2 AC 208 at [113] and [118]). Accordingly, although the adequacy of an assessment or the lawfulness of a decision may be the subject of a challenge to the exercise of a local authority’s functions under section 17, it is not for the court to substitute its judgment for that of the local authority on the questions whether a child is in need and, if so, what that child’s needs are, nor can the court dictate how the assessment is to be undertaken. Instead, the court should focus on the question whether the information gathered by a local authority is adequate for the purpose of performing the statutory duty i.e. whether the local authority can demonstrate that due regard has been had to the dimensions of a child’s best interests for the purposes of section 17 CA 1989 in the context of the duty in section 11 Children Act 2004 to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. It is perhaps helpful to examine that question in a little more detail.

13. Where a person has no right of recourse to public funds (i.e. the person is ineligible as a matter of law to have recourse to public funds or to the payment of sums under the Immigration and Act 1999 [‘IAA 1999’] see, for example section 54 and schedule 3 to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 [‘NIAA 2002’] and paragraph 6 of the Immigration Rules), that person remains eligible to receive support from a local authority in the exercise of its powers under section 17 CA 1989. That is because, by paragraphs 2 and 3 of Schedule 3 NIAA 2002, there is an exception to the ineligibility of persons who are prohibited from being provided with mainstream housing and welfare benefits where the ineligible person is a child or the provision of section 17 support is necessary for the purpose of avoiding a breach of a person’s Convention rights … The local authority is, however, prohibited from providing accommodation or assistance for such a family pursuant to the Housing Act 1996 [‘HA 1996’].

14. A local authority that provides support for children in need under the 1989 Act is acting under its powers as a children’s services authority (a local social services authority with responsibility for children) not as a local social services authority performing functions relating to homelessness and its prevention, and not as a local housing authority. The limited nature of the local authority’s power is important. …

15. Accordingly, although in this case the local authority provided accommodation and financial support, it did so under section 17 CA 1989 and not as a consequence of any other statutory scheme. In so doing, the local authority was not required to have regard to guidance issued under another statutory scheme, for example the Homelessness Code of Guidance issued under section 182 HA 1996. That said, the overarching obligation imposed on local authorities in England (and their specified partner agencies) by section 11 CA 2004 is to “make arrangements for ensuring that – (a) their functions are discharged having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children; and (b) any services provided by another person pursuant to arrangements made by the person or body in the discharge of their functions are provided having regard to that need.” That overarching obligation casts the evidential net rather wide so that a decision based on an assessment undertaken for the purposes of section 17 CA 1989 should identify how the local authority has had regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children both individually (i.e. the subject children as regards the claim) and collectively: …

16. The Secretary of State has issued guidance to local authorities in accordance with section 7 of the Local Authority and Social Services Act 1970 about assessments of need for the purposes of section 17 CA 1989. That guidance is to be followed save in exceptional circumstances (following the principle … that a local authority has liberty to deviate from the Secretary of State’s guidance only on admissible grounds for good reason but without the freedom to take a substantially different course). …

17. There are no categories or sub-divisions of ‘children in need’ in the statutory scheme. That is hardly surprising given the enormous range of circumstances in which children present to the authorities with needs that may require assessment. That is why there is a generic assessment framework with identifiable factors that is the object of the central Government guidance that has been issued. A local authority can be expected to evidence that due regard has been had to the framework dimensions and that there has been a proper appreciation of the potential impact of the decisions that have been made on the best interests of the individual children. The decision maker would be expected to demonstrate that the impact on the individual child’s welfare is proportionate given the other factors to which they are entitled to have regard, for example, the needs of other children and the resources of the local authority.”

“21. Given that the legislative purpose of section 17 CA 1989 in the context of section 11 CA 2004 is different from that in sections 4 and 95 IAA 1999, it would be difficult for a local authority to demonstrate that it had paid due regard to the former by adopting a practice or internal guidance that described as its starting point either the child benefit rate or either of the IAA support rates. The starting point for a decision has to be an analysis of all appropriate evidential factors and any cross-checking that there may be must not constrain the decision maker’s obligation to have regard to the impact on the individual child’s welfare and the proportionality of the same.

22. There is no necessary link between section 17 CA 1989 payments and those made under any other statutory scheme; quite the contrary. The section 17 scheme involves an exercise of social work judgment based on the analysis of information derived from an assessment that is applicable to a heterogeneous group of those in need. That analysis is neither limited nor constrained by a comparison with the support that may be available to any other defined group, no matter how similar they may be to the section 17 child in need. In any event, the circumstances of those who qualify for section 17 support, those who have just arrived seeking asylum and those who have failed in their application to be granted asylum are sufficiently different that it is likely to be irrational to limit section 17 support to that provided for in a different statutory scheme.

23. In so far as it was submitted that destitution as defined by section 95 IAA 1999 i.e. an inability to meet essential living needs or inadequate accommodation, or by section 4 IAA 1999 i.e. destitution in the context of accommodation, is relevant to section 17 CA 1989, the difference between the purposes of the two statutory schemes must be borne in mind. The latter scheme is to be applied to those persons who would otherwise be ineligible for recourse to public funds in order to avoid a breach of their Convention rights. Furthermore, the section 17 scheme, unlike the IAA schemes, is not the subject of regulations that make provision for the support which is to be made available to the defined group for a specific purpose.”

The Court came to the conclusion that there was no basis to challenge the Council’s  decisions based upon a flawed policy or practice that the Council inflexibly fixed its support payments. It did not base its decisions on such things. The Court was equally clear that it would have been inappropriate for the Council to have benchmarked its payments under Section 17 CA 1989 to any other statutory scheme including that applicable under the IAA 1999. Accordingly, the Court did not accept that there had been a breach of Article 8 founding an entitlement to damages.

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