Are Local Authorities misusing section 20 of the Children Act 1989?
There are few situations more stressful and upsetting than the local authority taking steps to remove your child or children from your care. To do this, the local authority must either issue care proceedings and the Court make a Care Order or the Local Authority needs to get the consent of the parents for them to accommodate the children. This consent is known as section 20 consent and is explained at section 20 of the Children Act 1989.
Concerns have been raised that local authorities are misusing section 20 by removing the children with the parents’ consent as an alternative to issuing care proceedings. This is potentially problematic as it can lead to a “limbo” situation where the children have no long-term stability, residing between the homes of foster carers and family members without any clear end date for a return home. It can also mean that the parents do not access legal advice or undertake the same range of assessments as to their parenting ability that they would within Court proceedings for a Care Order. There is a concern that parents may be coerced into giving consent or that they do so without fully understanding their options.
Now the most senior family judge in England and Wales, Sir James Munby, has joined the debate. He has recently released a judgement in which he criticises the local authority for delaying the permanent placement of a child, calling it a “misuse of their statutory powers” and a “denial of the fundamental rights of both the parent and child”. He has indicated that where local authorities do not use section 20 consent correctly, the court will be likely to criticise them and even allow damages to be awarded against them.
Local authorities take a different view on this issue, saying that section 20 consent allows them to protect children in scenarios where an application to the Court may not be the best option. This may be where the children are at risk but where the local authority cannot yet satisfy the Court’s criteria for a Care Order. Section 20 consent can also be used where parents accept that they need to make changes to their home environment and give consent for the children to be temporarily placed with other family members or foster carers. By removing the children with the parents’ consent, the local authority may be able to build a better relationship with the parents, making it more likely that the children would be returned to the family home.
It is clear that as a result of Sir James Munby’s comments, local authorities will need to review how and when they use section 20 parental consent. David Gray Solicitors has a number of dedicated family solicitors who have expertise in child protection issues and Care proceedings. If you have any questions about the local authority’s involvement with your children, do contact us today at our Newcastle office on 0191 232 9547 or our South Shields office on 0191 427 5007.