Local Government Lawyer Insight December 2018 LocalGovernmentLawyer 22 Over the last five years there has been a barrage of cases making their way through the various levels of the court system with regards to the appropriate use, or otherwise, of s20 of the Children Act 1989. Section 20 allows a local authority to accommodate a child in need who requires accommodation as a result of them being lost or abandoned, where there is no one with parental responsibility to look after them, the person with parental responsibility is unable to care for them or, regardless of whether a person with parental responsibility is available, if the local authority feels that it is necessary to promote and safeguard the welfare of the child. As you will appreciate, this covers a wide range of scenarios and as such has been used regularly and frequently in situations where it has been both justified and wholly inappropriate. In the latter it has resulted in not only care proceedings but also formal complaints, judicial reviews and Human Rights Act claims. Questions regarding the nature of consent, the necessity for the local authority to obtain such and indeed the length of time for which s20 should be used without court intervention have troubled the courts and by extension those in social care practice. Local authorities in England and Wales were noted by the Court to have been involved with over 70,000 children in March 2017, a figure which has been steadily rising for the last nine years. Of these children, 50,000 are the subject of care orders. Just over 16,000 children were accommodated by the local authority without any court order. As such, the question as to whether those 16,000 are lawfully accommodated and whether their human rights, and those of their parents, are being breached is an issue which will affect local authorities up and down the country. The Supreme Court judgment in this particular matter is extremely helpful in providing guidance as the Justices have taken the time to analyse numerous past cases and the nuanced circumstances of each. One hopes that this is reflection of Lady Hale’s Presidency of the Supreme Court and bodes well for future judgements providing practical guidance for those tasked with working to statutory duties. The details of the previous cases assessed by the Court are too lengthy to go into here, but for the sake of clarity they include babies taken away from mothers at birth, retention of a child in local authority care when one or more parents have indicated a desire for the child to be returned, whether a parent can validly consent or whether it is actually required and lack of action in situations where the parents do not object to the accommodation but no constructive planning with regards to the future takes place. Interestingly the Court accepted that, although s20 does not give the same protections to both child and parent that formal care proceedings would do, rushing unnecessarily into compulsory proceedings where there is scope for Kella Bowers analyses the Supreme Court’s guidance on s20 of the Children Act provided by its decision in Williams v London Borough of Hackney. s20: Some welcome guidance from the Supreme Court In cases where a decision has been made that the child cannot be rehabilitated into the family, but no action is taken to assess long-term plans or formalise that arrangement to ensure that the local authority have parental responsibility and the child’s future is court approved, local authorities should expect criticism.