What is Section 20 Accommodation and Can you Refuse to Agree to it?

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Patricia Cannon

Head of Family and Childcare

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Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 explains how a local authority can provide accommodation for a child within their area, when necessary, based on specific circumstances.

  • When the child is lost or abandoned.
  • When the individual responsible for the child is unable to provide suitable care or accommodation.
  • When no person possesses parental responsibility for the child in question.

Parents with parental responsibility can agree to voluntary accommodation under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989. Although it's termed "voluntary accommodation," parents may sometimes feel pressured to agree.

Under a Section 20 agreement, the child/children may be placed with approved local authority foster carers, or alternatively, with a family member who has received the local authority's approval, often a grandparent.

While Section 20 can offer a valuable option for short-term child accommodation, parents need to consider the amount of time such accommodation is allowed without a clear plan for the child's eventual return home.

Parents should always seek independent legal advice before consenting to Section 20 accommodation.

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Can you Refuse to Agree to Section 20 Accommodation?

Yes, you can. A Section 20 is a voluntary agreement. Social workers invite a person with Parental Responsibility to agree to have their child temporarily placed in alternative accommodation such as foster care.

If a social worker has asked you to consider Section 20, you might understandably be feeling worried or panicked about what happens next. It’s important that you consider your options carefully before making any decisions.

Our experienced Care Proceedings Solicitors can advise you on the terms of your Section 20 agreement so that you are fully informed of the implications before any further action is taken. Get in touch today for initial advice.

What does the law say about refusing Section 20?

The Legal Provisions

Under Section 20(8), the law says that:

"any person who has parental responsibility for a child may at any time remove the child from accommodation provided by or on behalf of the local authority under this section."

This means, if a parent chooses to withdraw their consent, it is mandatory for the child to be promptly returned to their care. If the local authority contends that it is unsafe for the child to return home, they might initiate legal proceedings and seek an Interim Care Order (ICO) with a removal plan. Alternatively, they may opt to leave the children with the parents while working in collaboration with the family under a Child Protection Plan.

Once court proceedings are started by the local authority, parents can access free legal advice and can challenge the decisions made by the authority. It's important to note that the court is responsible for making decisions in the best interests of the child.

What Should be Considered Before Agreeing to a Section 20?

The terms of each Section 20 agreement will differ, so it’s important that you understand the consequences of what you’re entering into before giving your consent.

Some points to consider before agreeing to a Section 20 include:

  • the amount of time proposed for your child to be accommodated;
  • if there will be a pre-proceedings meeting;
  • whether any investigations will be carried out.

If you decide to agree to a Section 20, you should request written confirmation of this.

You may also be asked to sign a “Contract of Expectations” which will outline what is expected of you and your Local Authority while the agreement is in place.

What Happens if I Refuse?

If you decide to refuse a Section 20 agreement, and the Local Authority does not want the child to remain in your home, they may apply for one of the following:

  • Interim Care Order – this is an order under which the Local Authority will share Parental Responsibility with you.
  • Emergency Protection Order – these Court Orders are rare and will only be made when a social worker believes a child is at immediate risk of actual harm and needs to be removed to a place of safety.
  • It is also possible that the police may intervene and place the child under Police Protection – in what they consider to be suitable accommodation for up to 72 hours.

It is important that you consider these implications before deciding to refuse a Section 20 agreement. Our Care Proceedings Solicitors have expertise in this area and can help you make a decision that will be in your child’s best interest.

Some cases on Section 20 in review:

These mentioned cases highlight critical issues related to the use of Section 20 of the Children Act 1989:

N (Children) (Adoption: Jurisdiction) [2015] EWCA Civ 1112:

In this case, Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Division, expressed strong criticism about the misuse of Section 20. He pointed out that there had been a significant misuse of this provision, particularly in cases where children were accommodated voluntarily under Section 20 for prolonged periods before any legal proceedings were initiated. This misuse was causing unacceptable delays and potentially harming the welfare of the children involved. He emphasized that such practices could no longer be tolerated.

Williams & Anor v London Borough of Hackney [2018] UKSC 37:

Lady Hale, in this Supreme Court case, further highlighted the problems associated with the use of Section 20. She cited several concerning issues, including instances where babies were separated from their mothers shortly after birth without proper legal authority, cases where children were retained in local authority accommodation even when parents expressed a desire to care for them, and situations where no constructive planning for the child's future took place. Lady Hale noted that the main dilemma for local authorities was the lack of legal safeguards when using Section 20, which did not provide the protections that compulsory procedures under the Act offered. Rushing into compulsory procedures without a partnership approach could make family reunification more challenging.

The extended use of Section 20 outside of legal proceedings, as described in these cases, has several detrimental effects:

Lack of Independent Representation: Children lose the benefit of having an independent figure, typically a Guardian, to represent and safeguard their interests. This independent representation is crucial for ensuring that the child's welfare is a top priority.

Lack of Court Control: The Court is deprived of its ability to control the planning for the child when Section 20 is used excessively outside of legal proceedings. This lack of oversight can lead to delays and complications in the child's future.

Limited Parental Legal Advice: Parents also face a disadvantage in terms of legal advice. If Section 20 is used extensively without court proceedings or during the Public Law Outline (PLO) process, parents are not entitled to legal aid on a non-means/merits’ basis. This means they may not have access to properly funded specialist solicitors, which can impact their ability to navigate the legal process effectively.

These cases cited underscore the urgency and importance of addressing the misuse and prolonged use of Section 20, emphasising the need for safeguards and legal protections to ensure the welfare and rights of children, parents, and all parties involved are adequately preserved.

How can our Care Proceedings Solicitors Help?

Whilst social workers have a duty to make sure you have the information and ability to give consent to a Section 20 agreement, you are also entitled to seek legal advice before making a decision.


Our Care Proceedings Solicitors will use their experience to make sure you are informed of each potential outcome before proceeding any further. We will listen to your situation and work to get the best outcome for you.


The Children Act 1989 (Legislation):

URL: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1989/41/contents

Section 20 Guidance Note for Parents and Professionals (Procedures Online, May 2016):URL: https://proceduresonline.com/trixcms/media/1412/section20guidancenoteforparentsandprofessionalsmay2016.pdf

S.20 Children Act 1989 - Consent Not Coercion: Issue or Be Damned" (Children in Law):URL: https://childreninlaw.co.uk/project/s-20-children-act-1989-consent-not-coercion-issue-or-be-damned-2/

The Children Act 1989 (Legislation): URL: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1989/41/contents

Patricia Cannon

Head of Family and Childcare

Areas of Expertise:
Care Proceedings

As a Partner, Children Panel Solicitor and Department Head of our teams of Care Proceedings Solicitors in London, Bristol, Manchester and Leeds; Patricia represents parents, other carers and children in care proceedings and other matters related to disputes regarding children.

Patricia also offers advice and representation to those seeking protection from or responding to allegations of domestic abuse.

Patricia joined Simpson Millar in October 2018, and has over 20 years’ experience in Family Law, having qualified as a Solicitor in 2001.

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