Buckinghamshire County Council has successfully defended a High Court challenge over a decision of its Cabinet to close 19 out of its 35 children’s centres.
The local authority will now proceed with the launch of a new Family Support Service, providing support and services for families with children aged 0-19 (up to 25 for those who have special educational needs or disabilities).
In L (An Infant), R (On the Application Of) v Buckinghamshire County Council  EWHC 1817 the claimant argued that:
- The council’s consultation was unlawful because it was unfair. It was not carried out at a formative stage, the council having already made the decision in principle not to maintain the status quo, and there was an appearance of predetermination. The council did not seek views on the "in principle" questions of whether any change in the way that children's centres were provided in the county would be appropriate, and specifically about whether any should be closed. The claimant also contended that the consultation failed to provide sufficient information to enable consultees to respond to it intelligently.
- The council was in breach of section 5A of the Childcare Act 2006, in that it failed to direct itself in accordance with its duty under that section ("the sufficiency duty") and by reference to the mandatory statutory guidance on the exercise of that duty, as it was obliged to do under s.3(6) of the 2006 Act.
- The council was in breach of its statutory duties under section 1 of the 2006 Act and/or section 11 of the Children Act 2004, and the Public Sector Equality Duty under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010.
Rejecting the claim, Mrs Justice Andrews said: “I am satisfied that the council carried out a fair consultation before it made the decision; it took the responses properly into account, and it complied with all its relevant statutory duties. This claim for judicial review must therefore be dismissed.”
HB Public Law, which advised Buckinghamshire and instructed James Goudie QC of 11KBW on the claim, said the judgment was the first time the High Court had considered in detail the meaning of the sufficiency duty in s.5A of the Childcare Act 2006 and emphasised the importance of careful consideration of local needs and the holistic nature of early help services. In particular, the following issues were relevant:
- Children’s centres should be seen as a constituent, complimentary part of a whole system approach to early help, in line with national guidance;
- Any decision should be informed by in-depth research and analysis into the needs of the local population;
- Subject to such a needs analysis, it is legitimate to restructure services to focus on the most vulnerable children and to have fewer buildings serving a wider age range, offering longer opening hours and more services;
- The statutory duty to consult did not require consultation before reaching a provisional decision that there should be some change and there was no need to include maintaining the status quo as a specific option or proposal in the consultation, as long as the council had an open mind and was willing to reconsider its proposals;
- In making an assessment of sufficiency, the council was entitled to take into account the proposed future use of any buildings that would cease to be used as children’s centres.
Warren Whyte, Buckinghamshire County Council’s Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, said: “We are very pleased with the court’s decision to dismiss this judicial review. It is regrettable, however, that we have had to contest it at all, as this has been a very costly process – both financially and in terms of the time spent by our team in preparing for this hearing. These proceedings have caused anxiety for our staff and critically, could have shifted focus and energy away from the children and families who need our support.
“This has never been about withdrawing any services – quite the opposite; it’s about enhancing how we help families across Buckinghamshire with children of all ages. People who need extra support will be able to get it in a more targeted way under the new Family Support Service.
“The very reason we are making changes to our service is to make sure families and children in greatest need of help in Buckinghamshire get that help sooner. By providing those families the right support at the right time, as well as maintaining a universal offer for everyone at 16 family centres, we can work to prevent families’ issues escalating, by offering help before their problems get worse.”