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When the Local Authority Acts Unlawfully....

The Law Society recently reported on a couple successfully awarded damages under the Human Rights Act after their children were unlawfully removed by their Local Authority (LA).

The case has taken several years to come to conclusion, with Deputy High Court Judge Sir Robert Francis QC commenting; “If ever there was a case illustrating the challenges that face children, parents, public authorities and the court when concerns are raised about the safety and welfare of children it is this”.

Hackney council in London said that the parents had given their consent under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, allowing their children to be kept away from them for longer than the 72 hours allowed under the original police order. They were not advised that they had a right to seek legal advice before consenting.

What is ‘Section 20’?

Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 is essentially about the LA’s duty to provide a child with somewhere to live if they don’t currently have a home, or a safe home. The LA will ask parents to sign a section 20 agreement to allow their children to live elsewhere, often while further investigations are carried out.

There are many requirements to be met if a section 20 is to be considered lawful. It is because these requirements were not met that the family involved in the Hackney case were awarded damages. It is not an assessment of whether the LA was right or wrong in removing the children, but of how it was achieved.

Does this happen often?

Unfortunately this is not a rare occurrence.

Head of our Family Law department, David Parkes is dealing with a very similar case at the moment, “Agreeing for your children to be placed in local authority care is such a major step that it should not be entered into lightly or when under pressure – whether by social care or emotionally because of the circumstances”

We have previously spoken with John Cameron, Head of Child Protection Operations at the NSPCC, on a similar issue.

He stated at the time; “When there are major failings and poor practice there can be a devastating effect on children and families. But there has to be recognition that child protection professionals have to make immensely difficult decisions every day. The consequences of not acting to remove a child at risk can be catastrophic. A balance needs to be struck with compensation. Professionals doing their best to protect children must not feel their judgment or ability to act swiftly is affected by the possible threat of litigation. Not acting could make the difference between life and death for a child in need of help.”

David agrees with this, but adds; “It is fine line. That is why my view is that parents should always have advice prior to signing consent under section 20”

If you have any concerns over a section 20 agreement with a Local Authority, or any other family matter, you can contact David directly on dparkes@bakers-solicitors.com or call the office on: 01457 859123

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