Surrey County Council were recently found to have breached several legal duties to a vulnerable child; a 15-year-old girl named LB (to protect her identity). LB had complex health and education needs. Because of these needs, she had been in the care of the Council since 2015.
Here is how I got involved with the case as an Education & Community Care Solicitor, and what happened.
The Case of LB
Surrey County Council were responsible for finding LB somewhere suitable to live, as well as providing her with the correct educational support which suited her specific needs. However, after the breakdown of previous residential placements, LB had been placed with her mother on a temporary basis until alternative accommodation could be found.
This arrangement was not supposed to last any longer than a week but ended up lasting five months. During this time, the Council accepted it had an ongoing responsibility to provide LB with accommodation away from home. Concerns were constantly raised with Surrey County Council, but despite the seriousness of the situation, and the growing concerns around LB’s wellbeing, no accommodation was provided.
LB’s mother got in contact with me, after being referred by another client. We initially sought to resolve issues with the Council via pre-action correspondence, without resorting to court. When it became clear the Council was not taking its responsibilities seriously, I issued judicial review proceedings on LB’s behalf. I liaised with LB’s independent advocate throughout the proceedings, to ensure LB’s experience was impartially presented to the court.
It was found that the Council had acted illegally in respect of several duties owed to LB to provide her with the help she needed in relation to her accommodation, care, and education. As a result of this, Surrey County Council were ruled by a High Court Judge to be in breach of their legal duties to LB, putting both herself and her family at increased risk of harm.
What we now Know Moving Forward
The judgement in this case provides clarity on the responsibilities of local authorities towards ‘looked after children’ such as LB and will be relevant to other similar cases. In this instance, the Council accepted their duty to accommodate LB, but avoided their duties by arguing that they could not be ordered to ‘do the impossible’; they relied on difficulties securing accommodation as justification for not complying with their responsibilities.
Under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, the duty to provide such children with accommodation is mandatory. Going forward, this judgement will be helpful in cases where local authorities argue they cannot be ordered to do the impossible, when they have a legal duty to do so.
It also provides useful guidance on the duty imposed on local authorities to provide education to children of compulsory school age who are out of school through no fault of their own. A local authority cannot say it ‘tried’ to provide a child with suitable education but then say that they were unsuccessful in doing so.
“A local authority must arrange for educational provision which is available, possible, and accessible to the child.”
Under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, which provides for assessments of ‘children in need’, it is made clear that a local authority responsible for providing a child with support to meet their needs has a continuing duty to review the services provided to such children.
How we can Help
At Simpson Millar, we believe that cases such as these should never come this far. We hope that in the future, children like LB will be properly supported and provided with the right level of care, accommodation, and educational provision.
This case has provided us with much needed clarity on the legal duties local authorities are required to comply with, to support children with disabilities and complex needs. As a result, we hope it will provide useful guidance to local authorities so that court challenges of this nature can be avoided going forward. If you’ve been affected by similar circumstances outlined in this article, contact our Education Lawyers today.
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