The use of s20 agreements

What is a Section 20 Agreement?

A ‘Section 20 Agreement’ is when a social worker from a Local Authority asks you to agree to your child going to live with somebody else, usually one of their foster carers.  It is called a ‘Section 20 Agreement’ as the law that allows this is Section 20 of the Children Act 1989.

The Law

The law says that a Local Authority must provide a home for a child who lives in their area if they think the child may not be safe living in their current home.

There are many reasons why a child may not be able to stay at home, for example:

  • The person who has been caring for the child cannot provide a suitable home;
  • There isn’t anyone who has parental responsibility for the child;
  • The child has been abandoned.

A local authority cannot provide a home for a child if anyone with parental responsibility objects and can provide a suitable home.

Any person with parental responsibility for a child may at any time remove the child from the home provided by the local authority under this section.

What signing a Section 20 Agreement means:

By signing a Section 20 Agreement you are agreeing to allow your child live somewhere else, usually in foster care, which is arranged by the social worker.  In agreeing to s20 you must agree all the plans for your child including when you will have contact with them.

The social worker might ask you to agree to your child living somewhere else if they are worried about your child and would like to work with you to see if they can help you to care for your child and your child returning home to you.

A Section 20 Agreement does not give the Local Authority Parental Responsibility for your child.  This remains with you.

You do have a choice about whether to agree to your child going to live somewhere else.  There may however be times when the social worker thinks that unless your child lives somewhere else they will not be safe.  If this is the case, and you do not agree, the social worker must ask a Judge to order that your child lives elsewhere.  The Judge can make either an Emergency Protection Order or an Interim Care Order.  Both of which will give the Local Authority Parental Responsibility for your child and enable them to place your child in another home.

A Section 20 Agreement should be a short term arrangement.  It should be used to see if improvements can be made for your child to return to your care and if this is not possible the Local Authority must ask the Court to think about where your child should live in the long term.

If you are asked to sign a Section 20 Agreement the social worker must explain to you what it is and why they think it is necessary. They should also give you time to speak to a solicitor for advice, which we do recommend.  If you are in receipt of certain benefits or on a low income you may be entitled to free legal advice.

The Local Authority’s social worker must not put pressure on you to sign the agreement or ask you to sign it if you do not understand what it says or means.  You must be given the opportunity to have it translated or read to you in your native language if English is not your first language.

by Harriet Burchett

Harriet is paralegal to Jonquil Houghton

You can contact us on 0207 976 2233 if you would like any further information about the use of s20 agreements.

Foster care under threat as budgets shrink  

 

FosterCare

Introduction

The Fostering Network is the UK’s leading fostering charity. Its aim is to help and support foster carers caring for fostered children. A survey carried out by the charity in February 2016 offers an insight into the impact of cuts to Local Authority budgets. The charity is keen that foster carers have their voices heard.

Reduced access to social workers

Foster carers expressed deep concern that the cuts result in reduced access to their fostered child’s allocated social worker and adversely affect the support that they are able to provide. As many as two thirds (69%) of foster carers expressed this view.  The survey suggests that these cuts cause unmanageable caseloads and a high turnover of social workers which results in them being able to spend less time with the child that they are supervising and inconsistency in the support that they offer.

Reduced access to wider services

Beyond the immediate social work support, foster carers commented on the lack of respite care and the difficulties faced when attempting to access mental health services for children. Two thirds (67%) of foster carers emphasised these two areas as being of particular concern. Many children entering the care system have complex needs which means that access to specialist support services is paramount.

Reduced access to foster carer allowances and fees

Foster carers reported that allowances have been suspended for a number of years. This has resulted in many foster carers now having to pay for things that had previously been covered by an additional allowance. This has put severe financial pressure on foster carers when it comes to expenses such as mileage or replacing equipment and breakages. The survey indicates that foster carers now pay for these items themselves in order to avoid fostered children going without. Two thirds of foster carers (70%) felt that their allowances had been negatively affected by funding cuts and the same can be said for the fees that foster carers receive for fostering.

Conclusion

The number of children in the UK entering the care system is increasing and over three quarters of these children are subsequently placed with foster carers. The charity asserts that it is important that Local Authorities continue to be adequately funded to ensure that they are able to help facilitate stable and loving homes for fostered children. Foster carers help to restore faith in family life for many children and must be encouraged to continue with the valuable work that they do.

You can read the full report of The Fostering Network, published April 2016 here: https://www.thefosteringnetwork.org.uk/sites/www.fostering.net/files/content/cuts_report.pdf

By Ellie Gee

Paralegal to Louise Creighton and Emma Hall

What is the Mental Health Act 1983?

 

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What is the Mental Health Act 1983?

The Mental Health Act 1983 is a piece of legislation which governs when you can be admitted and detained for treatment of a mental disorder. There are various parts of the Act in which you may be sectioned under and there are different sets of rules for each of these.

Some patients suffering from a mental disorder are classified as voluntary patients as they agree to remain in hospital for treatment. However, patients who are deemed to lack insight into their illness may be detained for treatment against their wishes under the Mental Health Act.  This is also referred to as being ‘sectioned’. If you are sectioned as a formal patient, you do not have the same rights as voluntary patients as you are not free to leave. The length of time you can be detained depends on which section you are detained under.

What is a mental disorder?

A mental disorder is defined as ‘any disorder or disability of the mind’. This is a wide definition and covers, but is not limited to, disorders such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and learning disabilities which are associated with abnormally aggressive behaviour.

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What happens if I am sectioned?

For this to happen, you must be assessed by a team of 3 health professionals. This would usually be:

  • An Approved Mental Health Professional (referred to as an AMHP) or the nearest relative;
  • A registered medical practitioner (usually a doctor who knows you, such as your GP); and
  • A section 12 approved doctor (a doctor who has received specialist training, usually a psychiatrist).

The AMHP will interview to decide whether detaining you in hospital is in your best interests and if it is the best way of providing the treatment you require. The doctors must agree to this decision and must also agree to this by their own assessment. They must also agree that it is in the interests of your own health, your own safety or to protect the safety of other people. If possible, one of the doctors should already know you and both doctors should assess you within 5 days of each other. The decision of whether to section you will be made by the AMHP within a 14 day window.

If the decision is made to section you and you have not been assessed in hospital before or for a long period of time, you will be detained under section 2 of the Act. This is a short term section where you be assessed to see whether you suffer from a mental disorder which requires treatment in hospital.

How long can I be detained?

You can be kept under a section 2 for a maximum of 28 days However, if at any time your doctor is satisfied that you are suffering from a mental illness which warrants your detention in hospital for treatment, he may place you on longer term section 3 detention which may last up to 6 months.

You may apply to the Mental Health Tribunal to appeal your section within the first 14 days of your detention.

If you have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act 1983 and would like advice regarding your rights, please contact us on 0207 976 2233.

By Chanelle Dadral

Paralegal to Shoni Newell

 

The President of the Family Division’s vision for a digitised, user-friendly Family Court  

 

Digitised and paperless family law

In a speech at the Family Law Bar Association’s annual dinner, the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, confirmed that the Family Law Courts could become entirely digitised and paperless in the next 4 years. He confirmed that the Family Law Courts are moving forward into a new phase of reforms further to the reforms in the law which came into force in April 2014. This new phase of reform is more practical in nature and he claims it will be fundamental. He stated that an entirely digitised and paperless Family Court can and must be achieved in the next 4 years, calling it a ‘real revolution.’ He confirmed there is a long way to go but the reforms ‘will extend to the entire justice system: crime, civil, family and tribunals.’

His first vision is for proceedings to be issued online in the future. This will involve an online questionnaire as opposed to a court form. The applicant will fill in a questionnaire, which will be user-friendly and enable them to provide all the relevant information easily. The first proceedings to become entirely digitised will be digital online probate and in family law digital online divorce. The initial implementation of this is planned for early 2017.

Further to this, the President envisages court hearings, up to and including the final hearing, to be carried out online so that the entire proceedings are digitised. This will use digital technology – such as video links – to complete hearings from the privacy of the lawyer’s office. This will result in the court buildings changing in design and function from what they are currently and they will not be visited as regularly by the judges or by practitioners who will be communicating digitally. Ultimately, such plans will reduce valuable time and costs associated with attending court hearings. The President did clarify that complex cases will continue to require practitioners to attend court in the traditional way.

Family law rules

It is clear from the President’s speech that the ‘large population of unrepresented litigants’ are at the forefront of his mind in making these radical changes. He said ‘we must constantly strive to improve, to streamline and to simplify the system.’ This is not only in respect of the application process but in relation to the rules that are currently in place. The President believes that ‘we need an entirely new set of rules’ as the current rules are ‘unreadable by litigants in person… and are simply not fit for purpose.’ He claims that the Red Book is ‘fit only for the bonfire!’ He indicates that the rules ‘must be short and written in simple plain English.’

Court forms

Finally, the President confirms that the Court forms need some fine pruning and that Court Orders need standardising. He envisions that the Orders will be ‘digitised, with standard templates, self-populating boxes and drop-down menus designed to ease and shorten the process of drafting then producing the Order.’ He states that this could be completed in the courtroom during the hearing, with the help of Wi-Fi, so that parties can leave court with an agreed sealed order in their inboxes.  This will inevitably prevent any delay or excessive correspondence between the parties and practitioners further to any hearings, which is currently seen in everyday practice.

Conclusion

It is clear from the President’s speech that drastic changes will be seen in the Family Courts in the foreseeable future. He encouraged practitioners to proceed with enthusiasm and optimism, stating that the different working practices must be embraced. He said ‘this is a time for courage’ and it is therefore with optimism that we embark on a new journey into the future of the digitised, paperless Family Court.

You can read the full speech here:

https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/pfd-speech-family-law-bar-assoc-2016.pdf

By Alice Clayson
Paralegal to Gemma Neath and Claire Thorpe

 

Sport Relief Bake Off 2016

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Creighton & Partners raised money for Sport Relief on Friday 18th March 2016 by holding a Bake-Off at their London and Staines offices. Everyone pitched in to make the day extra-special including decorating the office, making Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood masks and baking lots of delicious treats! Paralegals, Alice Clayson and Ben Dos Santos brought in home-made cupcakes and brownies, Legal Executive, Jacqui Cox made a mouth-watering lemon drizzle and a yummy Victoria Sponge and Clare Armstrong made red velvet and vanilla cupcakes.

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The bake sale was very popular within the building of the London office and they were told that they were the talk of the offices upstairs!

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Of course, Bake Off wouldn’t be Bake Off without Judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood who were certainly impressed with this year’s contestants. Jacqui was victorious with her Victoria sponge becoming the London office’s Star Baker and Clare Armstrong was a worthy winner with her cupcakes becoming the Staines office’s Star Baker!

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We had a blast raising £202.61 for a great cause. Thanks to all those who contributed.

By Alice Clayson and Nusrat Chauhan

Alice Clayson is Paralegal to Gemma Neath

Nusrat Chauhan is Paralegal to Hannah Fairhurst and Suki Bahia 

Misuse of s20 Children Act 1989

The misuse of section 20 Children Act 1989 and guidance for future good practice – Re N (Children) (Adoption: Jurisdiction) [2015] EWCA Civ 1112

An important decision of the Court of Appeal was handed down in November 2015, which should help to guide local authorities and improve their practice in relation to the use of section 20 Children Act (CA from here-on-in) 1989 throughout the remainder of 2016 and beyond.

In this case, Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division, stated that the “misuse and abuse of section 20…is wrong (and) it will no longer be tolerated”. He commented on the unacceptable delay in proceedings. He suggested that local authorities which use section 20 “as a prelude to care proceedings for lengthy periods”, or which fail to follow the good practice identified by him in his judgment, which I will discuss later, can expect to be “subjected to probing questioning by the court”.

The present case

The case in which the judgment was made was an appeal brought by a local authority against a decision of HHJ Bellamy at the final hearing of care and placement order proceedings. It related to two Hungarian children whose mother was Hungarian and father was Hungarian/Roma. The children had been placed in foster care with an English family. The parents of the children had agreed to them being accommodated by the local authority under section 20 CA 1989. The mother applied for an order regarding jurisdiction. The court granted the mother’s application for an order requesting the Hungarian court to assume jurisdiction in the adoption proceedings, therefore transferring proceedings to Hungary, pursuant Article 15 of Council Regulation (EC) no 2201/2003.

The essential issue in the appeal was whether HHJ Bellamy was correct to proceed under Article 15. The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal of the local authority, therefore confirming the initial judgment.

However, during the hearing, the issues explored by Sir James Munby broadened. One of the issues that arose, which I will be focusing on in this article, was the use of section 20 CA 1989.

Section 20 Children Act 1989

I will now concentrate on the misuse of Section 20 within this case, and indeed other cases, and how Sir James Munby not only highlighted the shortcomings of the local authority in this case, but also set out good practice which other local authorities should follow in the future.

The law reads as follows:

Section 20 – Provision of accommodation for children: general
(1) Every local authority shall provide accommodation for any child in need within their area who appears to them to require accommodation as a result of—

(a) there being no person who has parental responsibility for him;
(b) his being lost or having been abandoned; or
(c) the person who has been caring for him being prevented (whether or not permanently, and for whatever reason) from providing him with suitable accommodation or care.

Recently, there have been numerous cases where local authorities have been criticised for accommodating children under section 20 agreements for too long a time period before proceedings are issued. This inevitably causes delay and leaves the children’s future hanging in the balance, creating much uncertainty for them. It is thought that perhaps one reason why local authorities are delaying issuing proceedings is to use it as a tool to help keep within the 26 week timetable that begins from the time that proceedings are issued. It can be highly damaging for the children though, especially given that they are deprived of having a children’s guardian to represent their interests until proceedings are issued, and indeed goes against the very premise and purpose of attempts to limit proceedings to 26 weeks.

In the present case the children were placed in accommodation in May 2013 in accordance with section 20. However, care proceedings were not issued until January 2014, some 8 months later. Sir James Munby reasoned that although is some cases section 20 may be used effectively as a short-term measure to prevent the commencement of care proceedings, the use of it to delay proceedings being issued for as long as 8 months, as it was here, is “wholly unacceptable” and is a “misuse by the local authority of its statutory powers”.

He went on to highlight the recent case law in which local authorities were criticised for the misuse of section 20. Four discrete problems were set out:

  1. The failure of the local authority to obtain informed consent to accommodation from the parents at the outset of proceedings, going against section 20(7) which provides that a local authority cannot use its powers if a parent “objects”.
  2. The form in which the consent of the parents is recorded. Although the local authorities are not required by law to evidence the agreement in writing, a “prudent” local authority should ensure that parental consent is properly recorded in writing.
  3. The arrangements under section 20 are permitted to continue for too long, as focused on in this article.
  4. The apparent reluctance of local authorities to return the children to the parents immediately upon a withdrawal of parental consent. As a result of section 20(8) providing that “any person who has parental responsibility for a child may at any time remove the child from accommodation provided by or on behalf of the local authority under this section”, a local authority which fails to allow a parent to remove a child in circumstances within section 20(8) acts unlawfully.

Guidelines for good future practice

Sir James Munby went on to provide guidance for future good practice in relation to procedure under section 20 to eradicate the shortcomings listed above:

  1. i) Wherever possible the agreement of a parent to the accommodation of their child under section 20 should be properly recorded in writing and evidenced by the parent’s signature.

ii)The written document should be clear and precise as to its terms, drafted in simple and straight-forward language that the particular parent can readily understand.

iii)The written document should spell out, following the language of section 20(8), that the parent can “remove the child” from the local authority accommodation “at any time”.

  1. iv) The written document should not seek to impose any fetters on the exercise of the parent’s right under section 20(8).
  2. v) Where the parent is not fluent in English, the written document should be translated into the parent’s own language and the parent should sign the foreign language text, adding, in the parent’s language, words to the effect that ‘I have read this document and I agree to its terms.’

It is hoped that now that the above issues have been addressed, local authorities will take note and ensure good practice is carried out. Misuse of section 20 is a denial of the fundamental rights of both the parent and child and “must stop”. It is expected that local authorities will follow the good practice set out above from now on, or can be expected to be subject to serious questioning by the court and stringent criticism, with even potential claims against them for damages.

There have been signs of the courts already stepping up the efforts to ensure good practice is carried out to prevent the misuse of section 20. Recently, a West London Family Court local practice direction has been made, providing that all cases involving a “significant” section 20 delay will be listed before a circuit judge.  Judge Rowe sitting at West London has awarded damages for over £3,000 in one case involving a 2 month period under section 20.

It will be interesting to see whether local authorities adapt their methods of practice in the coming months, and especially to see whether there is a general reduction in the time between accommodation under section 20 and the issuing of proceedings.

Please contact us regarding any of the issues in this article or if you would like further advice.

Ben Dos Santos

Paralegal to Jonquil Houghton