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Unitary ordered to pay £320k for failings of predecessor authority in abuse case

A High Court judge has ordered a unitary authority to pay almost £320,000 in damages to four claimants who suffered “the most appalling” abuse at the hands of their father, after finding it vicariously liable for the negligence of social workers employed by its predecessor authority.

In the case of ABB & Ors v Milton Keynes Council [2011] EWHC 2745 each of the claimants was the victim of sustained and serious sexual abuse perpetrated by their father. The abuse took place between 1990 and 2005, when the father suffered a serious stroke.

The father subsequently pleaded guilty to 40 offences involving sexual abuse and was sentenced on 26 April 2007 to life imprisonment. Fifteen offences were perpetrated against the first claimant, 14 against the second claimant, eight against the third claimant and three against the fourth claimant.

Buckinghamshire County Council – the predecessor authority to Milton Keynes Council – became aware of the father’s abuse of the first and second claimants in April 1992. The father had admitted at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that he had abused the two older claimants.

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The disclosure led to enquiries by the local police force and a referral to social services. The father moved to lodgings and the first three claimants were placed on the child protection register (the fourth had not been born at this stage).

No charges were brought against the father – a decision that Her Honour Judge Hampton described as surprising. He returned to the family home on the day of a child protection conference on 22 October 1992.

During the relevant period the family were engaged in counselling and other therapeutic work. There were also further meetings and conferences.

On 22 April 1993 the claimants’ names were removed from the Child Protection Register and on 5 June 1993 the case was closed.

But the father continued to abuse the three older claimants and also started to abuse the fourth claimant from the age of seven or eight.

The four claimants alleged that Buckinghamshire had failed to investigate and analyse the background to the abuse and the relationships within the family adequately. It was also alleged that the risks posed by the father were not adequately assessed and this led to the father returning to the household. The claimants were therefore exposed to a foreseeable risk of harm.

Milton Keynes, as the successor authority, denied liability. The authority contested the nature and extent of the duty of care owed, and denied a duty of care to the fourth claimant who had not been born at the time of the involvement of Buckinghamshire’s social services department.

The council argued that the social workers’ response had been reasonable and competent, and submitted that it was not liable for the harm caused by the acts of the father after his return to the family. Milton Keynes also said that it accepted that there had been injury, but not to the extent of the losses claimed.

Judge Hampton ruled in favour of the claimants. She said: “I find that the evidence I have heard and read, supports the allegations of negligence against the defendants’ social workers.

“There was a failure to sufficiently investigate the father’s past, the mother’s ability or lack of ability to protect the claimants and the effect upon the claimants themselves.”

On causation, Judge Hampton concluded that had a key social worker’s enquiries and the decisions made on behalf of Buckinghamshire in the child protection conferences, been made on the basis of full and proper considerations, the father would not have been permitted to return to the home when he was and the file would not have been closed in June 1993.

She added: “If the mother had been unable to separate from the father, on the balance of probabilities the children would have been accommodated outside the family. If this was not done voluntarily, care proceedings would and should have followed."

The judge also suggested that had there been adequate follow up after October 1993, which she found that there should have been, on the birth of the fourth claimant, taking into account the alleged abuse in Israel, (had this properly been investigated) further child protection enquiries would have been made.

Judge Hampton said: “If social services had resisted the father’s insistence on returning home and the mother had been able to separate from the father, the claimants would have been spared the years of abuse which followed.”

She added that in allowing the family to reunite there was a foreseeable risk of harm being done not only to the first three claimants but also any further child added to the family, such as the fourth claimant.

Judge Hampton concluded: “I find that the claimants have established that the decisions taken by the defendants’ employees were not those that would or should have been taken by a responsible body of social work practitioners practising in the relevant period.”

The judge awarded the following sums to the claimants:

  • The 1st claimant: £92,500
  • The 2nd claimant: £155,487
  • The 3rd claimant: £12,000
  • The 4th claimant: £59,476

A spokesman for Milton Keynes said: “When these events occurred in the early 1990s, the responsibility for social care services in the area lay with the former Buckinghamshire County Council. Milton Keynes Council was formed in 1997, and inherited historic liabilities for this case at that time as the successor authority.

“Since the early 1990s, social work practice nationally and locally has developed significantly, with national statutory guidance such as the Assessment Framework in 2000 and the formation of Local Safeguarding Children Boards. We are committed as a council to ensuring that all children in Milton Keynes are protected from abuse and neglect.”

The claimants’ lawyer, Tracey Emmott of Emmott Snell Solicitors, welcomed the judgment and the unusually high awards of compensation.

“I hope it will cause all social services departments to re-examine their practices ensuring proper vigilance, tighter child protection and more objectivity by social workers,” she said.

“I also hope that it will be a salutary reminder to local authorities that it is the children’s interests which should always be paramount, and not lost to the manipulation or apparent plausibility of the parents.”

Philip Hoult

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