Social Care

December 21st, 2015 by James Goudie KC

In R (MM) v Hounslow LBC [2015] EWHC 3731 (Admin) the Council was the local authority responsible for (i) assessing and (ii) meeting the needs for care of an autistic child.  It was alleged that they had failed in both respects.  As Sir Brian Keith explained, the legal framework is well established. Local authorities are under a duty to “take reasonable steps to identify the extent to which there are children in need within their area”: see para 1(1) of Schedule 2 to the Children Act 1989. Guidance on how the needs of such children, including the needs of their families, should be met has been issued over the years. That guidance may be departed from only where there is good reason to do so. Its core feature is that the assessment of a child’s needs should not be an end in itself. Rather, it is a process which will lead to an improvement in the well-being of the child, and the conclusion of the assessment should result in a realistic plan of action, identifying the services to be provided, allocating responsibility for such action as needs to be taken, laying down a timetable for that action, and specifying the mechanism by which that action can be reviewed

A number of authorities have stressed the three stages which should inform the whole process: identifying the needs of the child, producing a care plan which specifies how those needs are to be met, and providing the services which the care plan has identified should be provided. That last stage is a critical element in the process. Once the first two stages of the process have been passed, the duty of the local authority to make provision for the needs which have to be met becomes absolute.

Sir Brian added that there are four other points that need to be made. First, the plan of action has to be a realistic one. It should not be just a vague statement of good intent. Secondly, the needs of parent carers are an integral feature of such an assessment, since providing services which meet the needs of the parents is often the most effective means of promoting the welfare of children in need, particularly disabled children. Thirdly, the maximum timeframe for the assessment to be produced, so that it is possible to reach an informed decision about what needs to be done next, should be no longer than 45 working days from when the assessment was commissioned. Fourthly, a new regime governing the functions of local authorities in respect of children with disabilities, including the provision of their social care needs, had been introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014, but was not material for the present case.

Having said all that, Sir Brian stated that it is important not to expect so much from those who prepare these assessments that we risk taking them away unnecessarily from their front-line duties. Judges should not subject such assessments to an over-zealous textual analysis which might be more appropriate to a document drafted by a lawyer in the context of a legal dispute.

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