A High Court judge has ordered a county council to pay £17,000 in damages under the Human Rights Act following a “truly lamentable” catalogue of errors, omissions, delays and serial breaches of court orders in a child care case.
The proceedings in Northamptonshire County Council v AS & Ors (Rev 1)  EWHC 199 related to DS, a boy born in January 2013.
His mother and father had come to the UK from Latvia in 2012. DS’s brother had arrived with them but had then been returned to live with the maternal grandparents.
The mother’s GP had made a referral in late 2012 to the council because of concerns about the mother’s lack of antenatal care and because she claimed to be homeless and was sleeping on the street.
Before the birth of DS the mother told a midwife that she had a new partner, OV, a heroin addict.
After the birth there were very substantial concerns about the mother and her care of DS. She avoided seeing the midwife and frequently moved address. Home conditions were “exceedingly poor”.
The mother told social workers that OV was being aggressive and threatening to her, and that he had left needles around the house.
The local authority concluded that DS was at a real risk of physical harm from the mother’s then partner. There were also concerns at the mother’s ability to care for the baby safely and appropriately, and her readiness to engage with professionals.
DS was 15 days old when on 30 January he was placed with foster carers by Northamptonshire.
His mother agreed to him being accommodated pursuant to s. 20 of the Children Act 1989. The judge, Mr Justice Keehan, later questioned how effective this consent was when it had been sought without the mother having the benefit of an interpreter.
Mr Justice Keehan noted how it was not until 23 May 2013 that the local authority made the decision to initiate care proceedings.
“Quite astonishingly it was not until 5 November – some five and a half months later and nine months after DS had been taken into care – that the local authority issued care proceedings,” he said, adding that he had “received no satisfactory explanation for these extraordinary delays”.
According to the judge, the case was further delayed by the “egregious failures” of the local authority:
- to undertake assessments of the mother, of the maternal grandparents, who resided in Latvia, and of the paternal grandparents, who reside in Spain;
- to undertake any proper or consistent care planning for DS; and
- to comply timeously or at all with court orders for the filing and service of assessments, reports and statements.
The problems had stemmed in part from the allocation of an inexperienced social worker who was not familiar with care proceedings as the social worker for a 15-day-old baby. The junior social worker was not provided with support from a more senior colleague until August 2013.
When the case was transferred to the High Court, principally because of the council’s failures “to issue care proceedings timeously and thereafter to comply with court orders”, Mr Justice Keehan ordered Northamptonshire to file letters from the Director of Children’s Services and the solicitor with conduct of the case.
The letter from the Director of Children Services, explaining the delay in issuing proceedings and the failure to comply with the orders of Northampton County Court, made for “very depressing reading”, Mr Justice Keehan.
The judge said he did not understand why it took until August 2013 to provide the inexperienced social worker with support or why senior managers did not intervene in this case.
“It is wholly inexcusable for a local authority to take three months to decide to issue care proceedings in respect of a very young baby and then a further five months to issue care proceedings,” the judge said, adding that the fact that the parents were Latvian and that close family members lived abroad, provided no explanation “less still an excuse” for the delay in the case.
“I appreciate that social services' departments have difficulties recruiting and retaining social workers but it is deeply worrying that over the course of these proceedings DS has been allocated no less than eight different social workers,” Mr Justice Keehan continued.
“It is evident to me that neither the social workers, nor the senior managers at Northampton Children's Services Department had DS's welfare best interests at the forefront of their minds. Worse still they did nothing to promote them. Their chaotic approach to this young baby's care and future life was dismal.”
The judge sharply criticised the council’s further failures in 2014 to comply with court orders and the President of the Family Division’s observations in Re W (A Child)  EWFC 22.
“This local authority plainly had no regard to nor heeded any of those observations whatsoever,” Mr Justice Keehan said.
“The Family Court will not tolerate a party, let alone a public body charged with the care of so very young a child, ignoring court orders. The result of so doing, as in this case, is a wholly unnecessary and harmful delay in the planning and placement of the child.”
The council was also criticised for its failure to consider the issue of a Special Guardianship Order – placing DS with the mother’s parents – in its final evidence and the late service of the same.
The judge said it was “extremely unfortunate that after so many egregious errors made by this local authority in respect of this child, it continued to act in the same vein right up until the closing stage of these proceedings”.
He added that he did not consider the subsequent explanations put forward by the service manager to be at all adequate. “She attempted to defend the wholly indefensible,” he concluded.
After the final hearing, DS was placed with his maternal grandparents in Latvia where he was thriving in their care, Mr Justice Keehan said.
Prior to the final hearing, the children's guardian formally notified Northamptonshire that she intended to issue proceedings in respect of the local authority's multiple breaches of DS's human rights contrary to Article 6 and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms A50.
The mother also issued proceedings against the local authority claiming damages for various alleged breaches of her Article 6 and Article 8 Convention rights.
Northamptonshire conceded liability on both claims. It agreed to pay £12,000 in damages to DS, £4,000 to the mother and £1,000 to the maternal grandparents to assist them in their care of DS. Mr Justice Keehan said he was satisfied that these damages were “entirely appropriate”.
The judge said the local authority’s errors and admissions would have been “serious enough in respect of an older child but they are appalling in respect of a 15-day-old baby”.
He added: “Each day, each week and each month in his young life is exceedingly precious. Where so young a child is removed from the care of his mother or father his case must be afforded the highest priority by the local authority.”
Mr Justice Keehan decided that the use of the provisions of s.20 Children Act 1989 to accommodate was “seriously abused” by Northamptonshire in this case.
“I cannot conceive of circumstances where it would be appropriate to use those provisions to remove a very young baby from the care of its mother, save in the most exceptional of circumstances and where the removal is intended to be for a matter of days at most,” he said.
“The accommodation of DS under a s.20 agreement deprived him of the benefit of having an independent children's guardian to represent and safeguard his interests. Further, it deprived the court of the ability to control the planning for the child and to prevent or reduce unnecessary and avoidable delay in securing a permanent placement for the child at the earliest possible time.”
The judge concluded: “I trust that the events of the first 23 months of DS's life will not have a detrimental impact on his future development and his emotional and psychological well being. There is a real risk they will do so.”