Local Authority’s duty to promote contact between a child in their care and relevant parties under section 34 of the Children Act 1989: Covid-19 Guidance

In the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak (‘Covid-19’), there has been little guidance as to whether Local Authorities have the ability to suspend contact between a child in their care and parties who have a right to contact with that child, either by parental responsibility or by a Court order.

The recently passed Coronavirus Bill[1] and corresponding Guidance[2] is unfortunately silent as to any relaxation of a Local Authority’s statutory duty under the Children Act 1989 to promote contact between a child in care and any relevant party as per section 34 and Schedule 2 paragraph 15 under the current circumstances.

However, as Covid-19 and legislation surrounding it progresses and changes, there may be future legislation and guidance continuing to emerge in the near future. As it stands the current laws, regulations and guidance provided is still in force and should be followed.

What is the applicable Law? 

Children Act 1989 (‘CA 1989’)

Where a child is in the care of the Local Authority, section 34(1)(a-e) and Schedule 2 paragraph 15 of the CA 1989 outlines the individuals that the Authority shall endeavour to promote contact with and allow the child reasonable contact with. 

Can the Local Authority suspend contact?

Due to the increasing risk that Covid-19 poses on the safe facilitation of contact, Local Authorities may consider suspending contact arrangements. This would be likely to result in parents and/or ‘connected persons’[3] of the child in care making an application to the Court under section 34(3) of the CA 1989 to allow contact to be re-engaged.

Paragraph 2.78 of 2015 Guidance[4] outlines  the presumption that there should be continued contact between the child and their family whilst the child is in the care of the Local Authority. [5]

However, the Local Authority is only under a duty to promote contact between the child and the parents and/or connected persons, ‘unless it is not reasonably practicable or consistent with his welfare’[6]. If the Local Authority is concerned that the child in their care would be at risk of coming into contact with a carrier of the virus, it would be arguable that such contact would not be consistent with the child’s welfare. Paragraph 2.96 of the 2015 Guidance provides further clarification, in that the responsible Authority must allow reasonable contact, ‘provided that contact is consistent with the Local Authority’s duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child’, thus supporting the caveat provided by Schedule 2 paragraph 15(1).

Section 34(6) CA 1989

Local Authorities can refuse to allow contact without making an application to the Court under section 34(6) CA 1989.

 Any refusal of contact under section 34(6) will only provide a temporary termination for seven days.  According to the current Government guidance, if an individual contracts the virus, they must self-isolate for seven days. If any individual contracts the virus in a household of several people, other individuals must remain in isolation for 14 days[7]. If any relevant parties were to contract the virus themselves or come into contact with an individual who has had the virus, a suspension of contact for seven days would not be a sufficient period of time to ensure that the virus will not be passed on, particularly in larger households. Therefore, if the suspension of contact is based on the Local Authority’s fears of Covid-19, it is not advisable to rely on s34(6).

Section 34(4) CA 1989

The Local Authority may also refuse to allow contact under section 34(4) CA 1989, whereby on an application, the Court may make an order authorising the Authority to refuse to allow contact between the child in care and any person mentioned in section 34(1)(a – d) and named in the order.  However, Thorpe J expressed in the case of Re S (Care: Parental Contact) [2005] 1 FLR 469, CA at [11], ‘a section 34(4) order should not be made… merely against the possibility that circumstances may change in such a way to make termination of contact desirable’. Due to the very real threat that Covid-19 poses on the public, it is arguable that the circumstances have already changed from what was the status-quo in England, before the virus was classed a ‘pandemic’.

If granted, contact will remain suspended until the order is discharged. There must be some material change in circumstances between the making of the order and the application to discharge it[8]. A clear material change would be a point where the Government confirms that Covid-19 is no longer a threat to the general public.

Any decisions to make a section 34(4) application should be carefully considered by the Local Authority. Such  an order may not be suitable where none of the relevant parties are showing any signs of Covid-19 symptoms and have not had contact with any other person who is symptomatic. However, the risk is that there is a level of uncertainty. The consequence is not only that the relevant parties could contract the virus themselves, but also that they could pass it on, putting others surrounding the parties at an unnecessary risk. The Local Authority should rely on their professional judgement in deciding what action to take, taking into consideration the welfare of the child and the effect on the child of no contact.

What does the Law mean in the current climate?

There is no express wording within section 34 that states that the Local Authority must promote contact through face-to-face meetings. Section 34 and paragraph 15(1) [Schedule 2] CA 1989 states only that the Local Authority must ‘endeavour to promote contact’ and ‘allow reasonable contact’. There is no further clarification of the definition of ‘contact’ within section 34, as such, there is room for interpretation as to what can amount to sufficient contact.

For example, paragraph 2.92 of the 2015 Guidance provides that meaningful contact can also be achieved through indirect means such asletters, telephone calls and exchange of photographs  and paragraph 2.94 encourages the use of modern technology in order to maintain contact. Therefore, the Local Authority will not be in breach of the duty to promote contact if they are unwilling to facilitate in-person contact due to fears of Covid-19.

 Practical Considerations

Given the recent guidance provided by the Government in response to Covid-19, consideration should be given to the safety of the child in care and the safety of the relevant parties. All parties should refrain from unnecessary exposure where possible. If the child in care, relevant parties, or any other individual living within the same household is symptomatic or has been in contact with another individual showing symptoms of the virus or the child is sick with something that might be the virus, then face to face contact should not take place.

 Video-Calling

If the relevant parties have mobile phones or laptops that can accommodate either Facetime, Skype or other video-calling technology, this would allow the parties seeking contact to see and speak to the child.

N.B. Video-calling presents the most efficient way to provide contact between the parties without putting any individual at risk of exposure.

Other forms of indirect contact

Parents and/or connected parties can have contact with the child indirectly through;

  • Letters
  • Gifts
  • Photographs
  • Telephone calls (Voice-calls only)

Contact in the Community

If the parents or connected persons wish to see the child in person, contact with the child may be possible from a distance, for example;

  • The child in care may be able to have contact at the front door of the household they are living in. This would allow the child to be seen and spoken too without having to leave the household and the parent or connected person would be able to safely distance themselves.
  • Contact could take place in the garden of the property if the parent or a connected person is able to gain access to it, without having to pass through the inside of the premises.
  • If the household that the child in care presides has windows on the lower floors of the property, which can provide a sufficient view and that can be opened so that the parties can speak to each other, this may allow contact to take place if the carer of the child is agreeable to contact taking place in this manner.

Current Government measures[9] have restricted the public’s need to leave their home. The Local Authority will need to review whether contact that has been previously facilitated at Contact Centres should continue and whether the risk posed to contact centre supervisors can be safeguarded against. The current restrictions on movement have been scheduled to last for three weeks, however, there are fears that such restrictions will continue for longer than initially presumed. On that basis, it is advised that face-to-face contact within Contact Centres should not take place. By offering and facilitating alternative methods of contacts, such a video-calling and letters, the Local Authority will not be in breach of their duties to their staff and under the Children Act 1989 to promote and facilitate contact.

In removing the option of face to face contact, the Local Authority would need to be prepared to deal with more applications for mother and baby placements for very young children. Arguably the case of keeping a mother and baby/toddler together would be strengthened if the alternative was no in-person contact whatsoever.

N.B. In keeping in line with current Government guidance, a distance of at least two metres should be kept between the parties for any in-person meeting. Open air contact, e.g. in parks, is to be advised against in light of the Government’s restrictions limiting public gatherings to a minimum of two people. If social workers believe they can effectively supervise contact from a distance, so as to ensure the parties are not ‘gathering’, there is a small possibility that open air contact could be carried out as the parent and child’s daily exercise. The Local Authority and the social worker would need to use their professional judgement to decide if they can safely facilitate contact in this way.

 Travel

If any of the relevant parties are required to travel for contact, public transport should be avoided as this may increase the risk of exposure. If one party in unable to travel, consider if it is possible to arrange with the other party to travel for contact instead, if they are able to do so safely.

N.B. Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parent’s homes.[10]

Government Intervention

Due to the lack of clarity surrounding the Local Authority’s duty to promote and facilitate contact, the Local Authority could consider contacting the relevant Government Minister directly to seek clarification as to whether Government envisages that face-to-face contact can take place under the current circumstances.

Whilst guidance has been issued concerning private law cases and children moving between households, that guidance does not assist in this instance. Given the pace of Government advice that is being sent out, this advice may be superseded by Government Guidelines forthwith.

 Refusal to co-operate

If the parents initially refuse to co-operate in using any alternative processes to facilitate contact, the Local Authority should consider first if the contact can be re-scheduled and whether any further provisions may be put in place.

If the parents either continue to refuse to co-operate, or having attempted to facilitate contact using alternative processes they have not been effective, the Local Authority will need to make an application to the Court under section 34(4) or apply s34(6) CA 1989 to suspend contact.

Conclusion

Recent developments have not led to a legal change in a Local Authority’s duty to safeguard and promote welfare and allow reasonable contact. However, during the current crisis it is likely that the word ‘safeguard’ will form the overriding basis when considering whether contact can be safely carried out. The Local Authority’s duty towards its supervising staff and foster carers means that exposing them to numerous families contact sessions is unlikely to be safe. Without that supervision, contact is likely to be rendered unsafe for other underlying reasons, which resulted in the child being in care. Thus, the practicality of arranging face to face contact poses significant problems particularly as there is no caveat within the current rules for parents to leave their home to travel to contact, placing them in breach of the current rules.

Pragmatically, at the present time, the only way to comply with the Local Authority’s duty is to offer and promote other indirect types of contact, but to commit to keeping the situation continually under review subject to Government rules.

For further updates from the judiciary visit judiciary.uk.

Liberty Crawford

Magdalen Chambers

[1]https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2019-21/coronavirus.html

[2]https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-01/0122/en/20122en.pdf

[3] any other person named in sections (b) – (e) of section 34(1) CA 1989

[4] The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations: Volume 2: Care planning, Placement and Case Review 2015

[5] This sentiment extends to those with parental responsibility for the child and connected persons [paragraph 2.79 of the 2015 Guidance].

[6] Schedule 2 paragraph 15(1) of the Children Act 1989

[7] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-stay-at-home-guidance/stay-at-home-guidance-for-households-with-possible-coronavirus-covid-19-infection

[8] Re T (Termination of Contact: Discharge of Order) [1997] 1 FLR  517, CA at [526]

[9]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/874742/Full_guidance_on_staying_at_home_and_away_from_others__1_.pdf

[10] Ibid

As published by Class Legal

 

Financial remedy work during the lockdown

Hot off the press from Devon’s Financial Remedy Judges is a protocol for dealing with Financial Remedy work during the current public health emergency. It provides that:

  1. FDAs currently listed will remain in the list as telephone hearings.
  2. New FDAs will be listed as telephone hearings for the foreseeable future.
  3. Parties are encouraged to agree directions for FDA wherever possible, using the accelerated written process for FDAs (see the fourth schedule to the FRC good practice protocol). In practice, paper-based disposals of FDAs have been with us for a long time and will continue.
  4. FDRs listed for a date within the next 21 days will be adjourned. This will give parties/representatives some breathing space to take stock both in terms of the practicalities and the economics of their case.
  5. FDRs which are adjourned in this way, will be listed for a telephone directions hearing on the first open date after 21 days. The hearing will be used to discuss whether an individual case is ready to proceed to an FDR and, if so, how that is best achieved remotely.
  6. Cases with FDR listings beyond 21 days will remain in the list as telephone directions hearings as per paragraph 5 above.
  7. Private FDRs are to be encouraged but cannot be directed (other than by consent).
  8. Final hearings listed, should be given a telephone appointment as soon as possible to consider whether a remote final hearing is possible (and, if so, the appropriate directions) or, if not, to adjourn.

Magdalen Chambers is very much open for business during the emergency. All Family Team members are confidently working remotely using a variety of platforms including Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype for Business and, by telephone.

Our Financial Remedy practitioners are committed to ensuring that Financial Remedy cases continue to be resolved during the crisis. We are able to offer a variety of services, including:

  1. Video conferences at home or in our video suite in Chambers.
  1. Private FDRs with a part-time or retired judge acting as FDR judge. These hearings are very well suited to being conducted remotely and with less delay than waiting for a court hearing.
  1. Our experienced financial remedy practitioners remain available to represent clients at FDAs, FDRs and final hearings remotely. Our experience convinces us that most cases (including final hearings) can be conducted in this way.
  1. Advising clients in writing and in conference.
  1. Early neutral evaluation – where both parties jointly instruct a single agreed barrister to advise on an appropriate settlement or on a specific issue in a case.

Please contact our clerks for more information.

Have you had your court hearing about your children adjourned or cancelled because of Covid-19? Do you need a decision now about your child?

There is an alternative which is quicker and more economical than the court, and is legally binding. It is called the Children’s Arbitration Scheme. Specially qualified children specialists are able to make legally binding decisions under this scheme which have the same effect as a court order. The difference is, this can be done with one or two hearings at a fraction of the cost of court proceedings. Both parties have to agree to this process and it has to be approved by the Arbitrator as suitable for arbitration.

Our Children’s Arbitrator is Sarah Evans, who also sits as a Deputy District Judge. If you need legal representation we can also offer specialist direct access barristers within Magdalen Chambers who are all totally independent and can assist you at the arbitration hearings and behind the scenes.

We can operate remotely during this time and have an in-house video conferencing suite for this purpose.

Contact us to check if your case would come within the scope of the scheme by emailing clerks@magdalenchambers.co.uk

For more information visit:
Ifla.org.uk
http://ifla.org.uk/divi/wp-content/uploads/Children-Scheme-Rules.pdf

Financial Remedies and Covid-19 – the Brave New World of Remote Hearings

Harold Wilson supposedly said that a week is a long time in politics, well it seems an even longer time in Family Law lately. Traditional ways of conducting litigation that have been taken for granted for decades (if not centuries) are now as rare as the proverbial white leopard, while new-fangled ideas of remote working and alternative dispute resolution (ADR) that some of us have been pushing for years have become the default overnight. It seems every day brings another guidance document. The challenge for family lawyers is not whether to move with this trend but how, and how quickly we can do it.

The brave new world

The sea-change in our method of working is exemplified by the latest guidance from HHJ O’Dwyer for the Financial Remedies Court at the Central Family Court in London. This guidance includes provision that, at least for the period from 6 April to 1 May 2020 (and probably longer):

• Only the most urgent cases will be listed for an attended hearing.
• “Urgent” means applications for interim maintenance, legal services payment orders, freezing/set-aside orders under s. 37 Matrimonial Causes Act and enforcement orders.
• Even those types of cases will be triaged – they will require an explanation by email 7 days in advance or on the date of issue of why they are urgent before any attended hearing will take place, whether remote or otherwise.
• Wherever possible First Directions Appointments should be conducted by agreement, and in default of agreement as a paper hearing on written submissions.
• Pre-Trial Reviews and Final Hearings already listed are to be reduced to 1.5-hour directions hearings, to consider whether a contested hearing is necessary and if so the measures to be put in place to enable such a hearing to take place;
• All other hearings, including any contested hearings not considered sufficiently urgent will be adjourned and where appropriate referred to ADR.
• The parties are under a duty to consider ADR.
• The parties are also required to consider whether any dispute between them can be dealt with at a paper hearing on written submissions.
• Where a remote hearing is necessary the parties will have to show that they have taken all reasonable steps to pursue ADR and that a paper hearing is not appropriate. Such remote hearings will be by telephone unless the court directs otherwise.
• Electronic bundles are essential, and must be searchable, electronically paginated and compliant with PD 27A.

Under this guidance, at least in the short term, most matrimonial finance disputes will be forced to move from the court arena to a form of resolution – ADR – which is unfamiliar to many practitioners and clients in this field. Similar guidance is likely to follow in other courts. The cultural and practical obstacles may seem daunting, but the reality is that the groundwork has been there for a very long time.

ADR and remote working in family law

Judge O’Dwyer’s guidance references procedural rules that have been in place for many years. Rule 1.4 of the FPR 2010imposes a duty on the court to encourage the use of non-court dispute resolution. Rule 3.3(1) requires the court to consider, at every stage in proceedings, whether non-court dispute resolution is appropriate. Where appropriate the court may direct that the proceedings be adjourned for such period as is considered appropriate to facilitate ADR. This has been in force in its current form since April 2014. It echoes similar provisions in the Civil Procedure Rules which have been in place for far longer. They provide for more than simply ticking the MIAM exemption box and moving on.

Rule 2.8 provides that the Court may deal with a case at any place that it considers appropriate. The overriding objective requires that cases are dealt with expeditiously and fairly and in proportion to the nature of the issues, with an eye to saving expense. Traveling many hours to a far-flung court to deal with a matter that could be dealt with by telephone would not seem to fit with this.

Best Practice Guidance on the conduct of FDRs issued as long ago as 2012 referred to private FDRs and there are reported cases where such private hearings have taken place going back at least as far as 2014. It should not be a new idea for most practitioners. The guidance was foreshadowed by Thorpe LJ’s reference to ‘private judging’ in Lykiardopulo v Lykiardopulo [2011] 1 FLR 1427.

In 2012 arbitration has been available for financial disputes on divorce and relationship breakdown, and since 2016 for private family law disputes.

In October 2014 in the case of JL v SL (No 1)(Appeal: Non-Matrimonial Property) [2015] 2 FLR 1193 Mostyn J urged parties who were arguing at great expense over the treatment of a relatively modest inheritance urged the parties to consider a private FDR or mediation rather than delay for a further final hearing. It is not recorded whether they took the Judge’s suggestion up, but the case was not resolved until at least two further hearings and a further 5 months had elapsed. The costs of such an exercise were likely very high.

In the same year Eleanor King J refused a wife’s application for a Legal Services Order on the basis of her attitude to ADR (see H v W (Cap on Wife’s Share of Bonus Payments) (No 2) [2015] 2 FLR 161).

In 2015 Cobb J in a speech to the Resolution DR conference asked whether “the time [has] come to amend the FPR to bring them in line with the CPR? Would you want judges to have the power (absent agreement) to stay a case to allow for settlement, or is agreement essential?”. The judge noted the element of coercion in bringing the parties together for an FDR as a mandatory attempt at settlement.

Rising to the challenge

In other jurisdictions (within and outside the UK) such ADR is commonplace. I can remember attending an arbitration in a wrongful death suit in California as long ago as 1997. If it was possible in the days before skype, zoom and Covid-19 to resolve such issues as compensation for the death of a loved-one out of court, then it is possible to resolve the division of matrimonial assets now with the benefit of such technology.

In civil proceedings there are costs implications for not undertaking ADR an Ungley Order is available, requiring the parties to consider ADR and for any dissenting party to file a statement setting out the reasons why it is not appropriate. In the First Tier Tribunals it has been common for years for the Child Maintenance Service to be represented by video-link, while many social security appeals are resolved by taking evidence by telephone.

As for remote working, I have been fortunate enough to spend half of my career practicing from London and half from the rather more pleasant surrounds of Devon. Nobody who has undertaken the slog to Mansfield or Lincoln County Court by public transport or been listed in Swindon at 10:00 and Gloucester at 14:00 for a largely uncontested directions hearing can have escaped the thought that there must be a better way. That is because there is.

I have represented clients based in the UAE, Peru, Australia and New Zealand and attended them by video conference or telephone. I have had evidence in court from parties abroad by video-link. Since moving to Devon, I have been able to undertake work for clients based in other parts of the country, again using technology to do so. As I write this my colleagues in chambers are attending disputed hearings with evidence via Microsoft Teams.

Once the natural fear of change is overcome it is not only possible, it is preferable to lengthy travel for relatively straightforward matters.

Many barristers’ chambers, including my own Magdalen Chambers in Exeter, have the facility for videoconferencing, arbitration and mediation, private FDRs and early neutral evaluation. We now have all our chambers meetings by videoconference and will be holding our first chambers online quiz night this week. My own experience of ADR and round table meetings is that, where the parties and practitioners engage in the process openly it is at least as likely to lead to a resolution as a formal FDR.

As family practitioners we will all be able to rise to this challenge if we embrace the technology and the new way of working. For some it will seem too daunting. No doubt the same was said by some when FDRs were introduced. I know many said the same when Direct Access was brought in. It is the new reality, however, and one which family lawyers are more than able to adapt to.

Eviction, Unlawful Eviction & Covid-19

Recent media reports and social media excerpts suggest there has been an increase in attempts by landlords during the current Covid-19 (Coronavirus) crisis to evict their tenants including one national report of a landlord attempting to evict a paramedic by text. This article answers in brief some of the questions that tenants and landlords may have in an already worrying time.

What process should a landlord follow if they wish to evict lawfully?

Most tenants with a private landlord have an assured shorthold tenancy (there are exceptions, for example, if the landlord lives in the same property with the tenant). If a tenant has such a tenancy, the landlord can usually only evict the tenant lawfully if it serves a notice under either section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 (a no fault eviction process) or section 8 of the Housing Act 1988 (where the landlord says the tenant is at fault such as because of rent arrears) and obtains a court order and gets the bailiff to enforce any possession order.

Are there any measures currently in place to prevent a landlord evicting during the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) crisis?

The government and judiciary have taken steps to prevent a landlord from evicting a tenant during the current pandemic.

The government has changed the law so that the notice that a landlord needs to serve on the tenant as a prerequisite to any possession claim (regardless of type of tenancy) is now 3 months (section 81 and schedule 29 of the Coronavirus Act 2020). This change in the law, at the time of writing, will continue until 30 September 2020.

The judiciary has introduced a new Practice Direction to the Civil Procedure Rules (Practice Direction 51Z) to stay (put on hold) all possession proceedings and action to enforce any possession order for 90 days from 27 March 2020.

What can a tenant do if a landlord seeks to unlawfully evict?

Unlawful eviction is a criminal offence so a tenant can contact the police for assistance. If it is suggested that this is a civil matter only, the tenant should refer the police to section 1 of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977.

Unlawful eviction also gives rise to a civil cause of action. A tenant who is unlawfully evicted can seek an injunction from the court ordering the landlord to reinstate the tenant to the property and can claim damages (compensation) for the unlawful eviction. A solicitor, Shelter or a Law Centre will be able to assist with such a claim and legal aid is available if the tenant qualifies in terms of means (income).

What are the consequences for a landlord who unlawfully evicts?

A landlord who unlawfully evicts his or her tenant is guilty of a criminal offence unless he or she proves that he or she had reasonable cause to believe that the tenant had ceased to occupy the premises. This offence is punishable by a sentence of up to 2 years in prison.

A landlord who unlawfully evicts could also face proceedings in the civil court. The first and most immediate remedy that will be sought by the tenant is an urgent injunction to reinstate the tenant and notwithstanding the Coronavirus crisis the courts are likely to deal with such injunction applications urgently. In addition, a tenant can make a claim for damages (compensation). A recent Court of Appeal decision acknowledged that awards for damages for unlawful eviction are generally between £100 and £300 per day. This author suggests that in the current climate awards are likely to be towards the upper end of that range. In addition, an unlawfully evicted tenant can seek exemplary and aggravated damages, which altogether can be in the thousands of pounds.

What can a landlord do about a tenant who is acting in an anti-social manner or committing a nuisance in these unprecedented times?

Injunctions remain available and are not subject to the stay that has been imposed on possession proceedings. Social Landlords and Local Authorities can seek an injunction under the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014. A private landlord can seek an injunction to enforce the terms of the tenancy agreement so, as long as the landlord has a good and comprehensive tenancy agreement, he or she can take action in the event of a breach to enforce the terms.

Does Coronavirus affect the tenant’s obligation to pay rent?

Coronavirus is likely to have a significant impact on the incomes of both landlords and tenants, but the contractual obligation on the tenant to pay the rent remains the same. Those landlords and tenants that are struggling financially should communicate with one another (by phone, email or letter in the current climate of restrictions) as this is far more likely to promote understanding and a good landlord and tenant relationship.

For landlords, during this uncertain period the government has stated that it “will ensure that support is available where it is needed for landlords” and there is a 3 month mortgage payment holiday available where landlords have a buy to let mortgage.

For tenants, the government has introduced various support measures depending on whether you are employed or self-employed and more information on these can be found on the government website or through citizens advice.

Magdalen Chambers has specialist Housing and Property Litigation Teams that remain fully functional during these difficult times and are able to advise tenants and landlords alike on any issues they are facing. In the event that you need assistance in any such matters we can be contacted on our usual telephone number 01392 285200

Local Authority’s duty to carry out inspection of Children’s homes under s80 of the Children Act 1989: Covid-19 Guidance

Local Authority’s duty to carry out inspection of Children’s homes under s80 of the Children Act 1989: Covid-19 Guidance

In the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak (‘Covid-19’), there has been little guidance as to what social workers should do when they are refused entry into the home of a child in care (or ‘looked after child’), due to the parent’s arguments that they are self-isolating or claiming that they have contracted the virus. There is a real risk that families may be using Covid-19 as an excuse to avoid contact with the Local Authority and therefore, places any children involved at risk of further abuse.

The recently passed Coronavirus Bill[1] and corresponding Guidance[2] is unfortunately silent as to any relaxation of a Local Authority’s statutory duty under the Children Act 1989 to carry out an inspection of children’s home in the current climate.

However, as Covid-19 and legislation surrounding it progresses and changes, there may be future legislation and guidance continuing to emerge in the near future. As it stands the current laws, regulations and guidance provided is still in force and should be followed. 

What is the applicable  Law? 

Children Act 1989 (‘CA 1989’)

Under section 80(1) CA 1989, any appropriate National Authority may cause to be inspected any premises where a child is living (s80(1) (a – l)).

Under section 80(5)(a), Local Authorities are authorised to carry out such inspections and shall have the right to enter the premises for that purpose at any reasonable time (s80(8)) and may under section 80(6) –

(a)     inspect the children there; and

(b)     make such examination into the state and management of the home or premises and the treatment of the children there as he thinks fit. 

2010 Regulations[3]

The 2010 Regulations set out in further detail what Representatives of the Local Authority are expected to do when seeing the child.

When considering the frequency of visits as part of their arrangements for supervising the child’s welfare, the responsible Authority must ensure that their Representative visits the child, wherever the child is living [Regulation 28(1)].

The Local Authority in undertaking their statutory duty, must ensure that their Representative visits the child, wherever the child is living and the Representative must speak to the child in private, unless –

(a)    The child, being of sufficient age and understanding to do so, refuses,

(b)    The Representative considers it inappropriate to do so, having regard to the child’s age and understanding, or,

(c)     The Representative is unable to do so

[Regulation 29]

What does the Law mean in the current climate?

Although the Local Authority has the right to enter the premises (s80(8)), there is no express wording within either section 80(6) CA 1989 or the 2010 Regulations stating that the Representative must do so in order to carry out their duty. Section 80(6) simply states that a Representative may enter the premises. Therefore, it is arguable that a Representative will not be in breach of their statutory duty under section 80(6)(a) or (b) if they carry out their inspection and assessment without entering the premises.

If such an interpretation is to be placed on section 80(6), the corresponding Regulations and Guidance should be read in the same light. Paragraph  3.245 of 2015 Guidance[4] states that ‘The standard of care should be observed and the child’s bedroom sometimes seen’. There is no express wording within the 2015 Guidance stating that the standard of care must be assessed in the child’s home, only that it ‘should be observed’ and  the child’s bedroom seen ‘sometimes’. Further, the Local Authority’s duty under section 80(6)(b) need only be carried out where the Representative ‘thinks fit’. Therefore, it is not necessary for these to be viewed on every home visitation. As such, an assessment of the state of the premises and the child’s care within it should only be undertaken where the Representative considers it necessary and will be a decision based on their own and the Local Authority’s professional judgement.

In addition, paragraph 3.250 of 2015 Guidance states that ‘Joint activities between the child and the social worker outside the home will allow the child to speak more freely’. This not only establishes that inspection of the child may take place outside of the premises, but also lends itself to achieving the Representative’s duty to speak to the child in private [Regulation 29] (or speak to the child alone – paragraph 3.243, 2015 Guidance).

There is further argument to suggest that the Local Authority will not be in breach of their statutory duty if they are unable to speak to the child in private, where the child is of sufficient age and understanding. Regulation 29(1)(c) states that Representative must speak to the child unless they ‘are unable to do so’. There is no further clarification of Regulation 29(1)(c) save for the limited explanation in the 2015 Guidance which gives the example of ‘because the child is out’. Therefore, it is arguable that the Regulation is open to interpretation as to potential barriers stopping the Representative from speaking to the child. This may include the parent’s refusal to allow the Representative to see the child, due to their ‘self-isolation’.

Practical Guidance:

In light of the Government’s response to Covid-19, social workers should consider their own safety and the safety of those around them and should refrain from unnecessary exposure where possible. However, following school closures and the Government’s encouragement for families to stay home, there is an increased risk posed to children in care who rely on third party sightings, particularly those provided by schools, in order to ensure that their safety and welfare is being maintained. The Local Authority may need to consider reviewing the families in their care and assess whether additional visits/contact should be put in place for families who are now unlikely to have access to other agencies they have previously relied on or have been involved with. 

Video-Calling

If the parents have mobile phones or laptops that can accommodate either Facetime, Skype or other video-calling technology,  the social worker will have the ability to;

  • inspect the state of the premises and the child’s bedroom
  • see and speak to the child

N.B  Family members should be asked to leave the room that the child is in and close the door to ensure privacy. 

Visitation ‘on the premises’

If the parents are unwilling to allow the social worker to enter the property, it may still be possible to view the child at a distance, for example;

  • The child may be presented to the social worker at the front door. This will allow the child to be seen and spoken too if the parents distance themselves.
  • The child may be presented in the garden of the property if the social worker is able to gain access to it, without having to pass through the inside of the premises.
  • If there are windows on the lower floor of the premises which can provide a sufficient view of the child and the inside of the premises the social worker may inspect and speak to the child.

N.B. Following Government guidance, a distance of at least two metres should be kept between the social worker and the child.

Visitation ‘within the premises’

Whilst the social worker has the right to enter the premises (s80(6) CA 1989) it is unlikely that it would be appropriate without Court approval. This is because where an inspection must take place within the premises, the social worker must be fitted with protective equipment before entering the premises. Such equipment may include, but is not limited to;

  • Face-mask
  • Gloves
  • Protective clothing
  • Where possible, protective equipment should be provided to the children being inspected

The welfare of the child is the paramount consideration. Such measures are likely to be considered extremely damaging to the child’s mental and emotional wellbeing and should be avoided wherever possible. Such action should only be taken where absolutely necessary. It is for the Local Authority to consider in their professional judgement whether they deem these actions necessary but given the likely impact on the child of such a visit, it would be advisable for an urgent application to be made to Court before any such actions are taken.

N.B The list of protective equipment is not exhaustive. The social worker should refrain from making contact with any objects in the premises and should, where possible, keep a distance of two metres from all other persons at all times. If any Representative fears that they have contracted the virus or been in contact with any symptomatic individual, visitation within the premises is not advised.

Refusal to co-operate

If the parents initially refuse to co-operate the Local Authority should consider if the visitation can be re-scheduled and whether any further provisions can be put in place in order to facilitate and carry out their duty.

If the parents either continue to refuse inspection of the child, or having attempted to carry out the visitation using alternative methods which have not been effective, the matter will need to be referred to Court in order to enforce any current order in place.

If in more serious circumstances, there is an immediate risk to the child’s welfare, the Local Authority will need to make an application to the Court to remove the child and place it in its care forthwith.

For further updates from the judiciary visit judiciary.uk.

 

Liberty Crawford

Magdalen Chambers

27 March 2020

 

[1] https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2019-21/coronavirus.html

[2]https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-01/0122/en/20122en.pdf

[3] The Care, Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010

[4] The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations: Volume 2: Care planning, Placement and Case Review 2015

As published by Class Legal

Appealing a Homelessness Decision Out of Time: A Welcome Sense of Realism Injected by the Court of Appeal in an Age of Legal Aid Advice Deserts

On 30 January 2020 the Court of Appeal handed down judgment in an important case concerned with bringing a homelessness appeal pursuant to section 204 of the Housing Act 1996 after the 21 day time limit prescribed.

The decision is Al Ahmed v Tower Hamlets LBC [2020] EWCA Civ 51 and it involved an appellant appealing out of time because he was unable to find legal advice and assistance to help him issue an appeal. At first instance, the Judge held that there was a good reason for allowing the appellant to bring an appeal out of time. That decision was reversed by the High Court, but the Court of Appeal allowed an appeal and restored the decision of the first instance Judge.

A number of important points arise out of this decision.

The first is the court’s conclusion that the Mitchell/Denton principles do not apply to section 204 appeals and the question of whether or not there is a good reason for allowing an appellant to bring a homelessness appeal out of time.

The second important point is the recognition given by the Court of Appeal to the realities of the post-LASPO climate. At paragraph 34 the Court of Appeal states: “I have summarised the evidence placed before this court by Shelter. It presents a bleak picture of the difficulties faced by homelessness applicants in bringing an appeal under s.204 of the 1996 Act without legal advice and representation, and of the difficulties they may face in finding someone provide those services under legal aid, especially as a result of the post-LASPO shrinkage of the housing advice sector.”

The third important point is that the court stressed that whilst every case depends on its own facts and circumstances, these were factors that could be taken into account. The court explained that: “it would be both surprising and unfair if difficulties of that kind could not be taken fully into account and given appropriate weight in the assessment of whether there was a good reason for failure to bring an appeal in time and, to the extent that it arises as a separate issue, for delay in applying for permission to bring an appeal out of time.”

The court was careful to ensure that this is not perceived as them giving carte blanche to delay and therefore said: “Where an applicant relies on the fact that he was unrepresented and was seeking legal aid as a reason for non-compliance, the circumstances will need to be examined with care, including scrutiny of the diligence with which he acted in seeking legal aid.” However, the willingness by the Court of Appeal to recognise the true position on the ground and that this may be a good reason for not bringing an appeal within time, when such appeals are complex and based on points of law only, is a welcome step in the right direction.

As a final word of caution, the position will be different where the appellant has had legal advice throughout the review. Nonetheless, anyone who has practised in this area of law will have encountered appellants who have only found assistance too late, and this decision offers some hope for such individuals.