A judgement was handed down this week by a Deputy High Court Judge Sir Robert Francis QC in the case of Williams and Anon –v- London Borough of Hackney.
In this case a husband and wife took the local authority to court for wrongly placing their 8 children in foster care.
The council felt that the children were at risk and allegedly removed them with consent under section 20 of the Children Act 1989.
The judge in this case ruled that no valid consent was obtained and that whilst the initial separation was justified it was unlawful for the local authority to keep the children beyond 72 hours.
It is a well established principle in English law that social services do not owe a duty of care to parents. The thinking of the courts was that as a policy decision social services should not be discouraged from removing children if they feel that they are in a vulnerable position and may be suffering neglect or abuse.
Whilst we are therefore regularly able to bring claims on behalf of children who have been failed by social services it has always been difficult to pursue similar claims for their parents. There have various test cases on this point but the courts have held firm in the view that there is no duty to parents.
The case of Williams, however, now gives clear authority that parents whose children are unlawfully removed will face claims under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.
We ourselves have brought similar claims in the past and have successfully negotiated settlement with various different local authorities. We actually dealt with a very similar claim to the Williams case in which the authority paid £35,000 to be split between the parents and the child who had all suffered as a result of their unlawful separation.
We have found in recent months that the family courts are becoming more aware of the rights of children and their parents under the Human Rights Act and this case now demonstrates the court’s increasing willingness to make a damages award as a result of the failings of local authorities in the course of care proceedings.
From our own experience the European courts are particularly hard on councils where there have been procedural irregularities such as in this case where the Section 20 consent was not properly obtained and we expect a growing number of parents to pursue claims in similar circumstances.
£20,000 in damages will never be enough to compensate a parent for being separated from their children for a number of months but our clients often feel that a damages award helps vindicate their position in establishing fault on the part of social services.
If you have been affected by social services wrongful removal of your children and are interested in pursuing a claim please do not hesitate to contact us for advice 0845 050 1958. Alternatively please complete an enquiry form.