Clarifying Section 20 – What Does It Mean For Your Family?


Many parents are asked to sign a Section 20 agreement out of hours when they have no access to legal advice, and become victims of scaremongering; told that the police will take the children by force if they do not comply. Whilst this is true, and the police do have the power to make a Police Protection Order, this only lasts for 72 hours and the grounds may not actually exist for such an order. In many cases, the agreement can wait until the next working day; seeking legal advice is highly recommended.

A Section 20 agreement does not give the Local Authority parental responsibility over a child.

For parents who have signed a Section 20 agreement –the questions 'what does this mean?', 'why is this being asked of me?', and 'where do I go from here?' are ones that are felt strongly, but never seem to be answered fully.

That's why our Leeds based Family Law Specialist, Helen Doolan, answers below the most common questions about Section 20; to debunk the misconceptions surrounding the agreements:

1. What does "Section 20 agreement /accommodation" actually mean?

Under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 the Local Authority has a duty to provide a child with somewhere to live if the child doesn't have a home for various reasons.Section 20 is used within care proceedings for parents to agree for their child to live elsewhere. Often, this is in foster care for a period of time. Generally during this time, the plan is for there to be further assessments of the parents or to give the parents time to make changes in order for the child to be returned to them where the parents and the Local Authority are working well together.

A Section 20 agreement is not a court order and parents should sign a written document explaining how the agreement works. Such an agreement does not give the Local Authority parental responsibility over a child.

2. Do I have to agree to a section 20?

In short, no.

The purpose of such an agreement is that it is supposed to be just that - an 'agreement.' You are entitled to obtain legal advice before entering into such an agreement to be sure you fully understand the terms and implications. The local authority should be able to provide you with a list of solicitors that deal with this area of law.

It is important that you fully understand exactly what will happen as part of the agreement and what the plans are for during this time, for example, if the agreement will be for a specified time period, if there any investigations to be undertaken, or if there will be a pre-proceedings meeting.

You should be given written confirmation of the agreement, which you will be expected to sign. You may also be asked to sign a "Contract of Expectations" which sets out what is expected of both you and the Local Authority during this time. You should again be given time to obtain legal advice before signing this.

3. What will happen if I do not agree?

If you do not agree and the Local Authority does not want your child to remain at home with you then they may decide to take the following action:

  • 1. Ask the police to make a Police Protection Order which allows them to accommodate the child for up to 72 hours;

  • 2. Apply to court for an Interim Care Order – or, if they feel the situation is urgent - they may apply for an Emergency Protection Order which lasts for a maximum of 15 days.

They may also look at other options with you such as whether there are any family members who the child could stay with for a short period.

4. Can I withdraw my consent and how?

Under Section 20(8) of the Children Act a person with parental responsibility can withdraw their consent at any time. The only exception to this is if there is a person with a Child Arrangement Order that states the child lives with them and that person agrees to the continuing accommodation under Section 20.

You can withdraw your consent verbally but it is better to do this in writing.

If the Local Authority does not want you to take your child home then, as above, they may seek a Police Protection Order or alternatively make an application to court and commence care proceedings.

If the Local Authority ignores your attempts to withdraw your consent, it is important that you obtain legal advice as soon as possible. The courts have recently been very critical of the Local Authority ignoring requests from parents to withdraw their consent and therefore it is essential we make any application to court as soon as possible on your behalf.

5. What should I do next?

If Social Services are involved with your children and have discussed the possibility of a Section 20 agreement with you, it is important to discuss this with a solicitor as soon as you can.

Simpson Millar Family Law

If you're unsure about any part of the Section 20 agreement, Simpson Millar has a team of Family Law experts on hand to walk you through your options. If needed, we can liaise with Social Services on your behalf regarding the terms of the agreement.

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