rightsinreality

Thoughts on the crossroads of law, politics and society – for when 140 characters just won't do. This blog contains general information and commentary on legal matters. It is not intended to provide legal advice. This blog discusses the law in England, unless otherwise stated.

Time to fight the removal of children’s rights through the Children and Social Work Bill

There are bad ideas. There are really bad ideas. And then there’s clauses 29-33 of the Children and Social Work Bill 2016.

This handful of clauses, if approved by Parliament, will allow the Secretary of State to exempt local authorities in England from the requirements of children’s social care legislation in the guise of ‘test[ing] different ways of working’. At a stroke the Secretary of State could say that Durham doesn’t have to meet disabled children’s needs under section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, Doncaster can forget about parent carers’ needs assessments or Dudley can ignore the duties owed to young carers. In the alternative, the Secretary of State could modify the way in which these requirements apply rather than exempt them entirely, just to increase the overall level of confusion.

I’m struggling to know where to start in explaining why this would be a bad idea. But here goes…This post is written from the perspective of the impact on disabled children, but similar concerns will apply across all children ‘in need’. For example, the clauses would seem to allow the Secretary of State to disapply every single requirement of the care planning regulations for looked-after children.

The law on support for disabled children, young people and families is already a mess. It derives from a patchwork of legislation enacted over the past decades, with duties and powers piled one on top of the other. The only saving grace is that it is the same mess everywhere – wherever a disabled child lives in England, their legal entitlements are the same.

If these clauses go through, even that saving grace will be lost. Rights and entitlements will vary across the country, depending on which exemptions or modifications the Secretary of State has granted to a particular local authority. This reduces rather than increases the transparency that is so badly needed if families are to enforce their rights.

What’s more, I simply do not understand why a local authority would need to be exempt from any of the baseline statutory duties governing support for disabled children in order to innovate or test different ways of working. The legislation governing children’s welfare creates a safety net which should never be removed or undermined in this way. Any specific amendments to the statutory scheme should require express and explicit Parliamentary approval, not the Secretary of State’s say-so.

All of the above is true at any time. However the statutory safety net is even more important at a time like this, when many local authorities feel constrained to cut services to the bone to balance their budgets.

The Bill comes back to the House of Lords for Report stage on 18 October – details of the Bill’s progress are on the excellent Parliament website. A coalition of individuals and organisations has come together to oppose these clauses under the banner of Together for Children. Please sign up to show your support – and please see this excellent article from Sara Ogilvie from Liberty for some of the wider concerns.

Hopefully the Lords will ensure that clauses 29-33 are removed from the Bill. However if they do not and they reach the statute book, it seems to me that there is a real issue here under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, given that disabled adults will continue to have the benefit of coherent legislation in the form of the Care Act 2014 whereas the patchwork of disabled children’s law will simply acquire more holes. It is very hard to see how this differential treatment can be justified, given that the needs of a 17 year old disabled child will be very similar to those of that young adult at 19.

Final point – all this shows how urgently we need the Law Commission to review children’s social care law

Why now is the time to engage with the next round of cuts

Two news stories that have popped up on my feed this morning highlight that now is the time for campaigners and local groups to start engaging with the next round of local cuts, for the financial year April 17-March 18.

Firstly, Essex is apparently consulting on potential cuts to children’s centres.

Secondly, Dorset is said to be considering a range of cuts to adult social care.

I have no doubt there are or will be similar stories across the country in the local media this week or in the near future. Local authority budgets are complex and require significant preparatory work followed by consultation and debate by members. So in order to have the budget ready to be approved next March, work on proposed cuts must be under way in every area.

But aren’t these cuts inevitable? Well, in short, no. There is no doubt that local authorities will be forced to cut services given the ongoing reductions in funding from central government. But the specific cuts they make must be made lawfully, taking into account all the relevant statutory duties. The recent West Berkshire short breaks judgment makes this clear. 

There are still choices to be made by councils – not just between which services to cut but also (for example) what level of reserves to hold and where to fix the council tax. All these choices are hard but they are choices nonetheless.
So campaigners and local groups concerned about potential cuts to valued services need to start engaging with their council’s proposals now. I’d suggest:

  • Keeping a close eye on local papers, TV and radio. Proposed cuts often generate local media interest.
  • Check the council’s website. All formal consultations (including the overall budget consultation) should be easily available online. Check the agenda and minutes of Cabinet and Council meetings for early warning of proposed cuts.
  • Make sure you work together, including if possible identifying people in the group with the skills and expertise to understand the financial proposals so you can ask the right questions.

I’ve set out some of the key legal questions campaigners and local groups may want to ask in an earlier post. I hope that post shows the wide range of legal duties with which local authorities must comply when making cuts.

Law Commission consults on review of children’s social care law – please respond

The Law Commission is consulting until 31 October 2016 on its next programme of law reform. One of the issues it is considering reviewing is children’s social care.

There will be competition for what goes into the Commission’s next programme. If, like me, you think children’s social care law is badly in need of an overhaul then please respond to the consultation before the end of next month – see the end of the final link above. One option would be to respond to say – ‘yes please, the current law is a mess’. However I’m sure the Commission would be assisted by slightly fuller responses. Here are some outline thoughts on the issues raised by the Commission in its consultation.

Firstly, the Commission must be right that many of the factors which required new legislation on care for adults in the Care Act 2014 also apply equally to children’s social care. As previously for adults, the law in relation to children’s social care is piecemeal and patchy. Although it centres around Part 3 of the Children Act 1989, the 1989 Act has been repeatedly and confusingly amended in the intervening years and there are other important statutes, not least the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act (CSDPA) 1970 for disabled children. There must be a compelling case for a simpler, more streamlined scheme for children as for adults.

Secondly, it is noteworthy that the first two specific issues identified by the Commission concern disabled children. This reflects in my view the fact that the current statutory scheme works particularly badly for disabled children. It is very difficult if not impossible for families and professionals to understand the links between the CSDPA 1970, the Children Act 1989 and the Children and Families Act 2014. The way social care law operates (or fails to operate) for disabled children therefore seems to me to be particularly ripe for review.

I will post my full response to the Commission nearer the time, but I hope the above is helpful as a starter for 10. Please do respond to the consultation and spread the word to others who may be interested. The Commission has an excellent track record of getting its proposals into law and so this is likely to be a worthwhile investment of time.

 

A new right to short breaks – but only in Scotland

I’m heading back from the fantastic International Short Breaks Association conference in Edinburgh, where I spoke about Aiming High for Disabled Children and the short breaks duty in England. This gave me a chance to look at the (relatively) new Carers (Scotland) Act 2016, which will apply from 2017-18. Although some aspects of the Scottish legislation are familiar from the English scheme (for example the requirement to publish a short breaks services statement), there are of course important differences.

The most striking difference to my mind is that in Scotland there will shortly be an enforceable right to services (potentially including short breaks) for some unpaid carers of disabled children, not just disabled adults as under the Care Act 2014 in England. This is because the Scottish Act applies to ‘carers’, who are defined simply in section 1 as ‘an individual who provides or intends to provide care for another individual ‘. There are then two exceptions, the first being ‘professional’ carers. The second exception is that the definition does not apply ‘in the case of a cared-for person under 18 years old, to the extent that the care is or would be provided by virtue of the person’s age’. It seems to me that applying this exception is likely to create practical difficulties – is the parent or other relative support a disabled child by reason of her disability, her age or both? Regulations should shed light on how this test is expected to work in practice.

Although the test may be problematic, the principle of extending a meaningful right to support to unpaid carers of disabled children in Scotland must be welcome. The high point of the English legislation in this respect is the duty under section 17ZD-ZF of the Children Act 1989 to carry out a ‘parent carer’s needs assessment’ (‘PCNA’), but as blogged previously these sections do not create any right to support.  The English short breaks duty and accompanying regulations are focussed on the commissioning of short breaks by local authorities and do not confer any individual rights.

The right to support (including short breaks) in the Scottish Act stems from section 24, which states that subject to certain criteria local authorities ‘must provide support to the carer to meet the carer’s eligible needs’. Eligibility is to be determined by reference to local eligibility criteria, although the Act contains a power for Ministers to make national criteria through regulations which would override local criteria. I can imagine some interesting discussions about whether that power ought to be used.

Section 25(1) of the Scottish Act states ‘A local authority, in determining which support to provide to a carer under section 24(4), must consider in particular whether the support should take the form of or include a break from caring’. As such there must be specific consideration of whether short breaks need to be provided in every package of support for carers with eligible needs. It may well be in many cases that the carer’s eligible needs can only reasonably be met through the provision of some sort of short break.

Much of the detail of the scheme under the new Scottish Act has been left to regulations, which are still forthcoming. I very much hope colleagues in Scotland are able to push for the most rigorous scheme that will provide an example in England and elsewhere.

One final reflection – the Care Act 2014 in England applies to disabled adults and their carers. The Scottish Act applies to carers of both disabled children and adults – but not to disabled people themselves. Is it naïve to think that we might be able to have a single joined up scheme covering disabled people of all ages and those who provide them with care? This seems particularly important when a short break must be a positive and rights-respecting service for the disabled person, not just a chance for a break for their carer.

There is a lot more in the Scottish Act than I have covered in these initial reflections. I should also stress that I am an English lawyer and am not familiar with the wider scheme in Scotland in which this Act sits. Any comments by those with more expertise will be very welcome.

Using the law to recover the cost of care which the state fails to provide

A recent case has shed some light on one of the most difficult problems that some disabled people and families may face – how to recover the cost of care which should have been provided by the state.

A typical scenario might go like this. An assessment shows that a disabled child or adult has eligible needs. There may even be a care plan put in place or other agreement on the services or funding required to meet those needs. Then nothing happens – and so the disabled person or their family is left paying for care which the state has accepted it ought to provide.

There are a number of options in this situation. For example, a complaint can be made through the local authority complaints process and ultimately to the local government or health Ombudsman, which could recommend compensation for maladministration. These recommendations are almost always followed by public bodies. Alternatively, if the local authority is asked to refund the monies and refuses, that decision could be challenged by way of judicial review on the usual public law grounds, including rationality and reasonableness. This is particularly likely to be appropriate where there are other ‘live’ issues with the care package. The sums involved would need to be significant to justify a stand-alone judicial review to recover past care costs.*

A recent case however shines a spotlight on a third option – an ordinary civil claim for ‘restitution’. The case in question is Richards v Worcestershire CC and South Worcestershire CCG and the judgment at [2016] EWHC 1954 (Ch) concerned the defendants’ application to ‘strike out’ the claim.

The value of the claim was significant, amounting to over £644,000. This reflected the costs of care for Mr Richards after his discharge from hospital in 2004. Mr Richards had been detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 and so was entitled to ‘after care’ support under section 117 of the 1983 Act. Importantly, the judgment records (at [18]) that Mr Richards was ‘not challenging the defendants’ assessment of his needs and or their decisions as to what after-care services should be provided. His case…is rather that the defendants failed to provide the services that they considered should be supplied’.

The Judge did not have to concern himself with the factual issues in Mr Richard’s case, because the defendants’ application was to strike the claim out on the basis that it was ‘not properly the subject of private law proceedings’ (at [20]). The first issue the Judge had to resolve was whether it was possible in principle for Mr Richards to bring a restitutionary claim. He decided this in Mr Richards favour, firstly on the basis that the 1983 Act did not exclude any such claim at common law. It would seem that the same analysis would apply to any of the other statutes which give rise to an entitlement to community care services, for example Care Act 2014.

The Judge also considered that Mr Richards may be able to make out a claim for unjust enrichment. The Judge recorded that ‘failure to perform a public law duty has never of itself been held to be an unjust factor for the purposes of a claim in unjust enrichment or a sufficient basis for any other restitutionary claim’ (see [36]). However it was seriously arguable that the defendants had been enriched at Mr Richards’ expense and no argument was put forward that Mr Richard’s case that the monies had been paid by ‘mistake’ could not succeed.

The second issue was whether Mr Richards was entitled to pursue an ordinary civil claim (under Part 7 of the Civil Procedure Rules) or if he needed to bring his claim by judicial review. In short, the Judge held that Mr Richards was entitled to bring a civil claim for the reasons set out at [50] in the judgment. This is potentially helpful in future cases as there is a much less strict time limit for ordinary civil claims than for judicial review.

The defendants’ application was dismissed and Mr Richards’ claim will now proceed to trial unless it now settles, which my uninformed guess says is likely.

In terms of the factors which would seem to be needed to mount a successful claim of this type, the first requirement would be a clear breach of statutory duty to provide support by the public body. It would seem unlikely that another breach of statutory duty, for example a failure to complete an assessment, would be sufficient, even if this led indirectly to expenditure on care. The claimant would then need to show the presence of an ‘unjust factor’ such as a mistake – or convince the court that the common law should be extended so that failure to perform a public law duty alone would be sufficient.

None of this is likely to be straightforward and disabled people and families will of course need specialist advice on the facts of their individual case. It may however be helpful to consider a civil claim as part of the set of legal options where a local authority or NHS body is simply refusing to cover the costs occasioned by a breach of one of their duties.

Thoughts on the above and / or examples (anonymised as appropriate) of how costs of care have been recovered in other cases are most welcome via the comments below.

*Moreover it is not possible to bring a claim for restitution alone via judicial review (see Civil Procedure Rules r 54.3(2)).

New case law updates on disabled children’s rights

Quick post (first for some time) to flag the new case law updates published by the Council for Disabled Children with its Summer Digest. These will hopefully be of interest to disabled young people, families and professionals.

The first covers two Upper Tribunal appeals brought by Hillingdon and Buckinghamshire. Both appeals considered the appeal rights for young people (aged 16-25) and the approach to be taken where a young person lacks capacity to bring their own appeal. The Buckinghamshire decision gives important guidance on the meaning of ‘education’ for young people.

The second is about another important Upper Tribunal decision (this time in an appeal by Staffordshire) which gives clarity about school transport entitlements for young people. It is important for young people and families to note the conclusion that the Tribunal cannot resolve disputes in relation to school transport and that the correct remedy is judicial review.

The third concerns a successful human rights claim against Kent in the context of care proceedings. The judgment suggests that serious failures to comply with the duties owed to disabled children under the Children Act 1989 may result in breaches of the Human Rights Act 1998, which may in turn lead to damages being awarded.

All three updates are themselves summarised in the main CDC Digest (see p14 onwards).

Safer homes for disabled children – crowdfunding cases for disabled children’s rights

Disabled children need safe and suitable homes – but with the housing crisis in parts of the country it is unsurprising that many disabled children have neither. The families of two disabled children (M and A) are challenging Islington council for failing to provide them with accommodation where they will be safe from falling and have sufficient space to meet their needs.

The challenge failed in the High Court. In particular the Judge held that the duty to co-operate between housing and children’s services in section 27 of the Children Act 1989 did not apply to ‘unitary’ authorities, for example London councils. Secondly the Judge held that the failure to put in place a child in need plan for M or A was not unlawful – despite the clear terms of the statutory guidance requiring such plans. Both these findings may reduce the protection of the Children Act scheme for disabled children if left unchallenged.

To their credit M and A’s families are willing to carry on the fight to the Court of Appeal. The issues their cases raise are obviously of very wide importance, potentially affecting thousands of families with disabled children. As such their legal team has worked with the organisation Crowdjustice to see if money can be raised from the community. The initial target is 3,000 pounds, which will allow the appeal to proceed to the next stage.

In my view the attempt to crowdfund M and A’s appeal is hugely significant. If it works in this case it can work in other cases – and be an answer in the right cases to the problems caused by the restrictions on legal aid.

Please consider supporting this important appeal by donating through Crowdjustice Please also spread the link throughout your networks.

For information on disabled children’s rights to housing see chapter 7 of the second edition of Disabled Children: A Legal Handbook. The section of this chapter in relation to accessing suitable housing for disabled children and families was written by M and A’s solicitor Rebekah Carrier.

Disclaimer – I work closely with the legal team for M and A. However I am not instructed on this particular case.

Can local authorities lawfully close all their children’s centres?

This post is prompted by recent reports that some local authorities are considering closing all their children’s centres in this round of cuts. See by way of example this recent article by Polly Toynbee.

There is of course a ‘sufficiency’ duty in relation to children’s centres, found in section 5A of the Childcare Act 2006 (inserted by an amendment in 2009). Sub-section 1 of section 5A states that:

‘Arrangements made by an English local authority under section 3(2) must, so far as is reasonably practicable, include arrangements for sufficient provision of children’s centres to meet local need’.

Section 3(2) (to which section 5A(1) refers) says that ‘The authority must make arrangements to secure that early childhood services in their area are provided in an integrated manner which is calculated to (a) facilitate access to those services, and (b) maximise the benefit of those services to parents, prospective parents and young children’.

A ‘children’s centre’ is defined in section 5A(4) as ‘a place, or a group of places (a) which is managed by or on behalf of, or under arrangements made with, an English local authority, with a view to securing that early childhood services in their area are made available in an integrated manner, (b) through which each of the early childhood services is made available, and (c) at which activities for young children are provided, whether by way of early years provision or otherwise’.

Despite the overly complex drafting, it seems clear that there is a duty on English local authorities to have sufficient children’s centres, being places managed for or on behalf of a local authority to provide integrated early childhood services and activities for young children. These centres must physically exist, i.e. not simply be ‘virtual’ centres (a network of services without a physical centre).

The duty in section 5A(1) is though subject to an important qualification. The duty must be carried out ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’. This begs the question – can a local authority which intends to close all its children’s centres say that it is not ‘reasonably practicable’ for it to operate any centres?

It may well be that this question is tested in court. My provisional answer to it is ‘yes in principle’ – but the authority would need to have:

  1. Understood the local need for such centres
  2. Considered what level of provision would be sufficient to meet that need
  3. Analysed to what extent it is reasonably practicable for it to make that provision, given the reduction in its overall resources and other pressures on its budget
  4. Complied with its wider public law obligations, for example the public sector equality duty in section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 and the duty to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in section 11 of the Children Act 2004. These duties are considered in my general blog post on legal issues relating to cuts.

It may be that local authorities could find a way through this process such that it would be lawful to reduce their level of children’s centres to zero, though I have my doubts. It would seem to require a local authority to justify why the other pressures on its budget are such that it cannot afford to operate even a single children’s centre. If the local authority is spending anything above the minimum required to meet its statutory duties in other areas (for example, collecting the bins) this may prove difficult. It is important that the wording is ‘so far as is reasonably practical’ – emphasising that the local authority should go as far as it reasonably can to provide sufficient children’s centres to meet local need.

The law requires local authorities to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote children’s welfare when tough spending decisions are made. What is clear is that a local authority which simply says ‘we are closing our children’s centres because our budget has been reduced’ will not have complied with the required process and would in my view be vulnerable to legal challenge.

If the section 5A(1) duty simply required the provision of ‘sufficient’ children’s centres then it is obvious that the answer to the question in the title of the post would be ‘no’. However Parliament has chosen to qualify the duty by reference to ‘reasonable practicability’. We may well see how the courts treat this qualification relatively shortly after local authority budgets are set for the next financial year, if decisions to close all their children’s centres are indeed taken by some local authorities. I hope though for the sake of the children and families affected that this question never needs to be answered by the courts.

Legal Essentials for Advocates and Activists, Manchester, 9 Feb 2016 (New Date)

A quick post to say that I’m running ‘Legal Essentials for Advocates and Activists‘ training with the Public Law team at Irwin Mitchell in Manchester on  9 February 2016*.

The training is aimed at non-lawyers who need to use the law to advocate for individual clients and / or for wider social change. Some of the key topics covered will include:

  • How to make real the rights in international conventions – e.g. children, disability
  • What the ‘common law’ is, and how some key concepts – rationality, fairness, duty to consult – can be used in advocacy work
  • Powers and duties – and the key distinction between ‘specific’ and ‘general’ duties in understanding rights

The training is priced according to organisation size and the rate for individuals and small organisations is £50 plus VAT – all the free places for disabled people and carers having now been allocated.

For more of a taste of the kind of issues we will be covering on 9 February, the ‘Legal Fundamentals’ chapter of Disabled Children: A Legal Handbook is now available for free download.

Please spread the word about the training to anyone who may be interested in getting a better understanding of how the law works in practice. We will hope to run the training in other cities in future years.

More information on the training and booking details are available here.

*Moved from January 2015 as a result of a problem with room bookings

Disabled Children: A Legal Handbook – second edition now available

I’m thrilled / relieved to say that the second edition of Disabled Children: A Legal Handbook is now available online.

Legal Action Group published the first edition in 2010. It is astonishing how much of the text has had to be rewritten some five years later. We have had a wholly new SEN scheme under the Children and Families Act 2014, major changes to social care for disabled young people and those in transition to adulthood under the Care Act 2014 and a massive reorganisation of the health service under the Health and Social Care Act 2012. All this change has basically made the first edition a museum piece.

As well as covering these headline Acts and the relevant regulations and guidance as best we can, we also have some fantastic new content for the second edition. Camilla Parker has produced the definitive guide to decision making and issues in relation to capacity and competence. Polly Sweeney has given us an incredibly useful resource by way of a chapter on all the forms of remedies available to disabled children, young people and families (as well as updating the Education chapter). Rebekah Carrier led on major improvements to the Housing chapter, including new content on how to help make sure families get a home which is suitable for their needs.

We also had the benefit of excellent input from Martha Spurrier who updated the Health chapter and Louise Price who updated the Equality and Non-Discrimination chapter.

The co-authors remain myself, Prof Luke Clements and Dr Janet Read. If (when) people discover we’ve got anything wrong, it’s our fault.

The law affecting disabled children, young people and families is excessively and unnecessarily complex. The complexity has been made worse by the new legislation, which sits on top of old law dating back at least until 1970. We have done our best to make the book as accessible as possible while accurately stating the law. We hope the extensive cross-referencing will help non-lawyers find their way around the text.

As with the first edition, all the chapters of the book will again be published online free of charge by the Council for Disabled Children – I’ll confirm when the downloads are available. I hope anyone who would print the whole thing out would consider buying the book instead (!)

Above all, I hope the book continues to make a contribution to ensuring that disabled children, young people and families get the services and support to which they are entitled by law.

Final thought – as I tweeted earlier, we are very proud to have part of the Justice Quilt on the cover (see image above). I hope anyone who buys the book will also sign up to show their support for the Justice for LB campaign as they continue to struggle to get justice from the system.

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