Hannah Slarks analyses a recent High Court ruling on runaways and the duty to accommodate under section 20 of the Children Act 1989.
The case of R (on the application of AI) v Haringey Borough Council (2016) QBD (Admin) concerns a vulnerable young man who repeatedly refused to be placed. The question before the Court was whether LB Haringey had done all that was reasonably practicable to try to place him.
AI had been offending since he was 12. By the date of the hearing, AI was a week shy of turning 18. He had been in local authority care for two years. Again and again, he was moved out of placements because of his behaviour. It came to the point that nowhere in London would take him. Plus, LB Haringey saw a risk that AI would become affiliated with a gang if he stayed in London. So it found him a placement in Nottingham. AI refused to move to Nottingham. His parents were also against the move. Instead, AI became homeless. Haringey applied for wardship. It continued to attempt to progress AI’s case. However, it struggled to maintain contact with AI, who provided no contact details. Haringey could not complete its Care Planning process until AI moved to Nottingham.
It was argued on AI’s behalf that he remained a child in need, and that Haringey had not done enough to discharge two duties. The first was the duty to accommodate under s.20 of the Children Act. The second was the duty to produce a plan compliant with the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review Regulations 2010.
In an ex tempore judgment, Timothy Straker QC found for Haringey. He held that the local authority had discharged the section 20 duty by offering the placement in Nottingham – despite the fact that AI had refused the placement. The duty to accommodate was not an absolute duty. It had to be seen in light of a child’s cooperation and finite resources. A local authority could fulfil a duty to accommodate where a child frequently and unequivocally refused a placement. The judge also questioned the appropriateness of granting relief, when Section 20 would cease to apply altogether within a week.
Helpfully, the judge listed the relevant principles for a local authority applying s.20 to a runaway:
(a) The s.20 duty persists even if a child in need runs away.
(b) The duty is performed by the provision of accommodation. The actions of the child do not mean that the duty has not been performed.
(c) If a runaway child is found, the local authority still has an obligation to perform the duty.