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Council criticised in dispute over designated local authority for care proceedings

A Court of Appeal judge has criticised Wakefield Council for trying to pass responsibility for a child protection case onto Brighton & Hove City Council, whose involvement she described as “tangential at best”.

In Y (A Child) [2019] EWCA Civ 2209 Lady Justice King said such designation disputes between local authorities “consume both time and scarce financial resources, which are better spent on the child(ren) at the centre of the argument”.

Child Y, aged 18 months, was made subject in September 2019 to an order by Deputy Circuit Judge Hunt that Wakefield should be the designated local authority in relation to care proceedings.

The dispute between Wakefield and Brighton & Hove concerned funding, not the interim care plan itself.

Y and her mother had made a series of moves but ended up in a hostel in Belfast before travelling via Kidderminster to Brighton.

Belfast authorities asked Brighton & Hove to conduct a welfare check, which it did finding no sufficient concerns for intervention, particularly as the mother produced a return ticket to Belfast.

The mother then moved instead to Wakefield and having lost contact with her Belfast asked Brighton & Hove to locate Y and secure her safety through an emergency protection order (EPO) and recovery order.

The EPO was issued to Brighton & Hove on the understanding that Belfast would be issuing the care proceedings imminently. She was later found in Wakefield.

King LJ said HHJ Jakens, who then heard the case, “was rightly concerned about Y [which] was exacerbated by the fact that, in her view, Wakefield were being uncooperative”.

HHJ Jakens “reflected her concern for Y, and her disapprobation of what she regarded as Wakefield's failure to co-operate with BHCC, in a number of recitals to her order; and invited Wakefield now to liaise with BHCC as a matter of urgency”.

King LJ said: “It is completely apparent from the transcript of this hearing and the judgment, that the judge regarded the key players in relation to the welfare of Y as being Belfast and Wakefield, and that the judge saw no continuing role for BHCC.”

It then came as “a considerable, and unwelcome, surprise” to Brighton & Hove to discover that Wakefield now wanted it to become the designated local authority in care proceedings.

King LJ said the mother was not at any time ordinarily resident in Brighton and previous cases about children placed in other areas by local authorities were irrelevant as “far from being placed in Wakefield by BHCC, their involvement had been tangential at best, having been entirely conducted at the request and upon the instruction of Belfast”.

Dismissing Wakefield’s appeal, Lady Justice King said she recognised the difficult financial constraints under which local authorities operated.

However, she urged all local authorities to have in mind Ward LJ's observations about 'swings and roundabouts' before embarking on disputes such as this.

Lady Justice King said: “Wakefield, initially and correctly, had no sense that BHCC would be the appropriate authority to be designated. Unfortunately however, once it was clear that Belfast would not be the designated local authority, they seem to have felt obligated to find a way to avoid responsibility for the funding of Y's placement and of the care proceedings in relation to Y.

“The result was that costs were incurred in legal proceedings which would, almost certainly, have covered the expense of Y's foster care for many months.”

Mark Smulian

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