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Duty bound

Duty bound 84930869 s 146x219Alexander Campbell of Arden Chambers discusses on LexisPSL Local Government the interplay between housing duties and children’s services duties.

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R (on the application of J and another) v London Borough of Hillingdon [2017] EWHC 3411 (Admin)

Where a local authority is asked to provide accommodation to a parent and child under its housing obligations as well as, in the alternative, under its social services obligations, questions arise about what level of cooperation is required by the two departments when each is reaching a decision about its own obligations in a particular case. In this case, the High Court was called on to decide that issue. J and L applied to join Hillingdon’s housing register. The social services department, when asked to provide accommodation under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 (ChA 1989), declined to do so, relying on the fact that the current accommodation was tolerable in the short term pending a decision from the housing department. That decision was held to be unlawful because it failed to address what would happen if (as happened in this case) the housing department decided that it would not assist.

What are the practical implications of this case?

The case is a strong reminder for local authorities of the need to ensure that a holistic approach is taken to individual cases. In particular, as in this case, where one department decides that its intervention is not needed because another department is involved, it must turn its mind to how likely it is that the other department’s intervention will, in fact, happen and how likely it is that it will rectify the issue adequately.

The case reminds local authorities of the need to ensure that where its decisions engage section 11 of the Children Act 2004 (ChA 2004) (ie where it is exercising a discretion rather than simply making a factual decision about the existence of a state of affairs), it must ensure that its decisions show proper, reasoned consideration of s 11.

Where local authorities arewont harelying on expert evidence (such as medical evidence from a doctor), they must be careful to avoid placing reliance on conclusions which are in fact outside that expert’s remit, such as general opinions about the case as a whole.

Finally, the case is a reminder to local authorities that they must ensure that when completing an assessment, they give specific, detailed and meaningful answers to the questions raised in the assessment, rather than answers which are so general that they are of limited—if any—practical value.

What was the background?

J is a single mother to L, a child with a range of disabilities. They live in a privately rented bungalow which J contends is unsuitable for her child primarily because of its proximity to a busy road and because of the risk of L drowning in the bath if he were to have a fit in the bath.

J applied to Hillingdon to be placed on the local authority’s housing register under Part VI of the Housing Act 1996 (HA 1996). Her application was refused on the basis that she had no identifiable housing need because their current accommodation was suitable. J later reapplied and again her application was refused on the basis that there was no identifiable housing need. A review was sought of that decision.

Hillingdon’s social services department produced a child and family assessment. That assessment concluded that accommodation should not be provided by social services under ChA 1989, s 17. That was because the family’s housing situation was not considered so urgent that housing needed to be provided outside the ongoing application for housing to the housing department. The child and family assessment concluded that, pending a decision by the housing department, the risks to L (in the bath and on the road near the house) could be managed by his mother supervising him carefully.

On review, the housing department maintained that there was no identifiable housing need, relying on a medical report which found the current accommodation suitable.

What did the court decide?

J and L alleged that Hillingdon had failed to produce a lawful child and family assessment and that it was not entitled to conclude that supervision by J could adequately address L’s needs given the dangers posed by their current accommodation. They alleged that Hillingdon’s conclusion that there was no identifiable housing need was outside the range of reasonable responses available. They further alleged that Hillingdon had failed to ensure that its housing and social services departments had worked together and safeguarded/promoted L’s welfare as required by ChA 2004, s 11.

The court agreed that Hillingdon had acted unlawfully. It decided that there had been a failure to deliver an integrated approach between housing and social services: social services’ conclusion that the current accommodation was tolerable in the short term was predicated on the assumption that the matter would be dealt with by the housing department. The child and family assessment failed to address what should happen if (as did in fact happen) the housing department decided that it would not assist by way of adding J and L to its housing register.

The court criticised the child and family assessment as giving answers which were too generalised to be of practical value. The court also criticised Hillingdon for relying on a medical assessment in which the doctor who wrote it expressed views on matters outside their professional expertise.

Finally Hillingdon was criticised for providing no evidence of engaging with ChA 2004, s 11 duty.

Case details

  • Court: High Court (Queen's Bench Division, Administrative Court)
  • Judge: Nicklin J
  • Date of judgment: 21 December 2017

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