supreme court

A judgment in the Supreme Court handed down this morning confirms that councils must fully inform parents of their rights in relation to section 20 arrangements. The Court suggested that a failure to do so could amount to a breach under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides a right to respect for private and family life.

S.20 agreements enable local authorities to accommodate children in need, where parents cannot look after their children or where children seek alternative housing, for short periods of time.

The Supreme Court judgment in Williams and another v London Borough of Hackney, overturns current child protection practice which allows social workers to use S.20s to remove children, without giving parents substantive information about the arrangements.

The Supreme Court also reaffirmed that the Children Act 1989 did not contain any clauses requiring councils to get informed consent from parents, however Lady Hale made it clear that this was good practice. We remain of the opinion that whilst the need to obtain consent from parents under such arrangements is not written into the legislation, it is implied, given the nature of these agreements. Nevertheless, this judgment represents an important step in addressing the unlawful detention of children in state care under these arrangements.

Lady Hale went on to say that S.20 arrangements did not give local authorities any compulsory powers and that councils were not able to offer accommodation where there was a parent willing and able to provide, or arrange, accommodation for a child. Furthermore, the court held that S.20 arrangements could never be exercised by a local authority unless a parent voluntarily delegates their parental responsibility to the local authority in question.

Summing up her judgment, Lady Hale explained that parents should always be informed on the basis upon which their children are being looked after, and their rights to object to that care under S.20 arrangements. She also reminded councils that they could only keep a child if they had been given permission by the family courts to do so.

This final point is hugely important given that councils have been routinely detaining children in state care without filing applications with the family court requesting permission to do so, which is illegal.

Researching Reform is encouraged by this judgment, which echoes our previous calls to acknowledge the need to ensure that families are fully informed about their rights under S.20 arrangements.

The Supreme Court Website offers, as always, a very helpful breakdown of the case, including a press summary, which we add below, along with more information about S.20 arrangements for those who would like it:

You can watch Lady Hale explain the facts of the case and her judgment in this video: