A judge has ordered a London council to pay £20,000 in damages for breaching the claimant parents’ human rights when it unlawfully continued to keep their eight children in foster care.
The background to the case of Williams & Anor v London Borough of Hackney  EWHC 2629 (QB) was what the deputy High Court judge, Sir Robert Francis QC, described as a relatively trivial incident on 5 July 2007.
A young child arrested on suspicion of shoplifting alleged that he had been beaten by his father with a belt.
This led to the exposure of issues about the upbringing of the family in respect of whom there had been no previous concerns. The police who visited the home believed that it was not in a fit state to accommodate the children.
The eight children, including a young baby, were removed from the parents’ care and distributed to foster homes.
A consideration of the welfare issues concluded that if some simple improvements were made to their home, the children could return home.
However, it was two months before the children returned to their parents, after experiencing a variety of foster placements, “some of which were of dubious quality”, the judge said.
A criminal investigation led to a 20-count indictment against the parents, but in the end, two years later, no evidence was offered and the parents were acquitted.
The parents’ complaints to the Local Government Ombudsman were upheld in part. Despite this and the exoneration of their character in the Crown Court, they felt their grievances had not been properly addressed and therefore brought proceedings against the council in their own right.
The claimants accepted that the authorities acted lawfully in the initial action of taking their children into foster care under the authority of what was described as a police protection order.
However, they claimed damages for what they said were the unlawful actions of Hackney and its officers in keeping their children in authority controlled foster care after the expiry of the effect of the police order.
Hackney denied liability in any of the various causes of action alleged by the claimants. The council also argued that a Section 20 agreement signed by the parents on 6 July authorised it to continue to accommodate the children away from their parents, an assertion disputed by the parents.
On the question of the validity of the Section 20 agreement, Sir Robert Francis QC concluded that the claimants had not been fully informed of the matters of which they should have been informed.
This was because:
- Bearing in mind the threatening circumstances in which the safeguarding agreement had been offered to the claimants its form contained a number of defects. Amongst other things, the document made no reference to the legal basis on which the children were to be accommodated by the council, meaning there was no guidance for the parents as to the context of what they were signing;
- There was no persuasive evidence that the parents were expressly told that that they had a right to take their children away from local authority provided accommodation at any time or to object to that provision and the judge accepted that they were not;
- There was no evidence that the claimants were told, “still less encouraged”, to seek legal advice before signing the agreement;
- There was no clear indication offered as to the effect of the agreement following the expiry of the police protection order;
- While the judge did not accept that the parents were told, or that the council’s officer intended to convey to them, that they would never see their children again if they did not enter the agreement, he did accept that this was what, in their distressed state, the claimants understood;
- The circumstances, combined with the inadequacies of the information conveyed, were such as to amount to the "compulsion in disguise" of the type described by Hedley J in the Coventry case. Such agreement or acquiescence as took place was not fairly obtained.
Sir Robert therefore concluded that on 6 July there was no valid consent obtained from the parents such as to give Hackney authority to accommodate the children under section 20.
The judge went on to conclude that there was no legal authority for the children to be kept away from their parents from mid-July.
Sir Robert rejected the parents' claims of causes of action in negligence, religious discrimination and misfeasance.
However he did award £10,000 to each parent for a breach of their right to a family life.
“This was undoubtedly a close family presided over by loving parents,” the judge said. “They were extremely distressed by the continued separation from their children and constantly voiced their anxieties in that regard to the defendants. They witnessed the adverse effects of foster care on more than one of their children, one of whom was a baby who was being breast fed.”
Sir Robert continued: “On the other hand, I must bear in mind that the initial separation was justified, and that an investigation of the type which occurred would have taken place in any event. This is not a case of permanent loss or bereavement, and the children were returned in the end.”
The judge said earlier in the judgment: “If ever there was a case illustrating the challenges that face children, parents, public authorities, and the courts when concerns are raised about the safety and welfare of children it is this.”