Insight Local Government Lawyer Insight December 2018 23 partnership working with parents may make reunification of the family unit more difficult rather than less. It was noted that there is nothing in s20 to place a limit on the length of time for which a child may be accommodated without care proceedings being initiated and as such, in theory, a child could remain accommodated under s20 for quite some considerable time. However, a local authority is under a duty to assess the child’s needs a prepare a care plan for them with regards to their long-term upbringing. This is largely where local authorities have fallen foul in claims for breaches of human rights for children accommodated under s20 without any court intervention and associated Independent Guardian support. 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. In this particular case the eight children, including an eight-month-old baby, were removed from the parents by way of a Police Protection Order as a consequence of the condition of their home environment and potential issues of neglect. The children were then subsequently accommodated under s20 and could not initially be returned due to the parents having a bail condition not to have access to the children whilst police investigations continued. During this period the parents were asked to sign a safeguarding agreement with regards to the children’s continuing accommodation about which it was held that they had capacity to consent and did not object. Later involvement by the parents’ solicitors was eventually held not to be an unequivocal withdrawal of consent but rather an offer of collaboration by the parents to avoid the need to care proceedings and achieve the return of the children, which is what eventually occurred. The appellants’ case was that their article 8 of the ECHR rights had been breached due to the children having remained accommodated unlawfully. The Supreme Court dismissed this argument. The court commented: � The best way to ensure real and voluntary delegation of responsibility from parent to local authority is to inform the parents fully of their rights under s20. � No such consent to delegation is required when a local authority essentially steps into the breach where there is no-one with parental responsibility or such a person is prevented from exercising such, as in cases of abandonment, parental refusal to accommodate or, as in this case being prevented by criminal investigation and bail provisions. � If a parent with unrestricted parental responsibility rejects, the local authority cannot accommodate and must explore other routes to safeguarding the child. � Safeguarding agreements were accepted as good practice but they should not give the impression of a fait accompli and that the parents have no right to object or remove the children. � The objection to s20 or the removal of consent or delegation to the local authority must be unequivocal. An offer to work with the local authority to achieve the return of a child would not amount to a withdrawal of consent or delegation and therefore is not a reason to immediately require the commencement of care proceedings. � There is no time limit within the Children Act as to the length of time that section 20 can be used. However, a failure to undertake long-term planning, regular assessments and take appropriate action when rehabilitation to the family is abandoned, could lead to criticism and human rights breaches Williams v London Borough of Hackney is the culmination of a roller coaster of cases which have resulted in those in social care practice being reticent in the use of s20 as a practical tool in their arsenal. One hopes that this case will result in a more sensible and reasonable assessment of its use in the future. Kella Bowers is Head of the Social Services and Abuse Team at Forbes Solicitors 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.