Insight Local Government Lawyer Insight December 2018 19 Acting for local authorities is so simple, I thought in the days when I acted only for family members. Your client always turns up to court. Being able to say “I’m for the local authority” in the robing room sounds so grand ... and, a bit like prosecuting before magistrates, your case is bound to be cast-iron. That, as I say, was in the days before I moved to new Chambers whose members acted not only for family members but also for local authorities, and I volunteered enthusiastically to add another area to my practice. My naïve preconceptions came home to me when I was instructed to represent an authority at a final hearing. I discovered when I got to court that the social worker did not agree with the care plan; it was her manager, she said, who had insisted on it. Yet the manager was not there to give evidence. How, I wondered, could the social worker possibly be expected to give oral evidence in support of a care plan with which she profoundly disagreed? Matters were resolved in the end through a conversation with a head of service and the case concluded by agreement: but it could all have gone disastrously. Since I started practising in the area, local authorities have, among other things, had to grapple with the major decisions of the Court of Appeal in Re B-S (Children) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146 and W (a child) v Neath Port Talbot Borough Council [2013] EWCA Civ 1227. I have often found that it is the local authority of all the parties which has to bear the brunt of criticism, whether it be from the court, family members or the children’s guardian. Here are my thoughts about the conduct of litigation by local authorities: good practice, bad practice and the pitfalls… Compliance with orders I once heard a team manager say defensively, “It’s not me. It’s [fill in name of borough]”. This followed a series of criticisms about non-compliance with directions from the other parties’ representatives. All parties to care proceedings should be familiar with the Court of Appeal’s reminder to practitioners of the truism that orders are “not preferences, requests or mere indications” – and local authorities should be particularly mindful of the chilling warning that “an unwilling party who flouts the court’s orders may find itself in contempt, even if it is an agency of the State such as a local authority”. The problem that local authorities face which other parties do not is simple: directions are made against “the local authority” which, while a singular legal entity, has many officers fulfilling its responsibilities. (There is at least one High Court Judge who would disagree with me that local authorities are “singular”: on draft orders, he always changes references to “is” to “are” and so on.) While I would prefer directions to be against the individuals who are meant to comply with them, I accept that this is impractical in the case of the authority. What is essential, in my view, is for someone of sufficient seniority within the local authority to delegate the various parts of the order to relevant officers, to monitor the position in good time to ensure that orders will be complied with – and to seek the court’s directions if for any reason there is likely to be non-compliance: beforehand, rather than after the event. Here is another practical suggestion, which deals with the problem that arises when a local authority is waiting for evidence from another body – even another party to the proceedings who has failed to comply with a direction – and the document the authority is due to file depends on receipt of that other piece of evidence. Let us suppose, for example, that the local authority is due to complete a statement setting out recommendations in relation to a child’s placement once it has received a medical report. Julien Foster examines good practice, bad practice and the pitfalls when it comes to local authorities and public law children proceedings. Order in Court