Section 20 (S20) essentially sets out the obligations on a local authority to provide accommodation for a child that has no accommodation – or none that is safe. This is what the law says:
(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.
(2) Where a local authority provide accommodation under subsection (1) for a child who is ordinarily resident in the area of another local authority, that other local authority may take over the provision of accommodation for the child within –
(a) three months of being notified in writing that the child is being provided with accommodation; or
(b) such other longer period as may be prescribed.
(3) Every local authority shall provide accommodation for any child in need within their area who has reached the age of sixteen and whose welfare the authority consider is likely to be seriously prejudiced if they do not provide him with accommodation.
(4) A local authority may provide accommodation for any child within their area (even though a person who has parental responsibility for him is able to provide him with accommodation) if they consider that to do so would safeguard or promote the child’s welfare.
(5) A local authority may provide accommodation for any person who has reached the age of sixteen but is under twenty-one in any community home which takes children who have reached the age of sixteen if they consider that to do so would safeguard or promote his welfare.
(6) Before providing accommodation under this section, a local authority shall, so far as is reasonably practicable and consistent with the child’s welfare –
(a) ascertain the child’s wishes and feelings regarding the provision of accommodation; and
(b) give due consideration (having regard to his age and understanding) to such wishes and feelings of the child as they have been able to ascertain.
(7) A local authority may not provide accommodation under this section for any child if any person who –
(a) has parental responsibility for him; and
(b) is willing and able to—
(i) provide accommodation for him; or
(ii) arrange for accommodation to be provided for him, objects.
(8) 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.
Local authorities are increasingly coming under fire for securing parental consent under duress without obtaining informed consent, and for placing children under this section for lengthy periods of time – in a recently reported case, 9 years.
This is not a tool by which local authorities can or should seek to extend the statutory 26-week timetable for concluding public law proceedings. The potential impact of placing a child under S20 and then delaying the issuing of public law proceedings is immense. It deprives the child of having their interests safeguarded and represented through the appointment of a Children’s Guardian, and it deprives the Court of any judicial oversight in managing the planning in respect of the child.
S20 may have an important role to play, in appropriate cases, as a short-term measure pending the issuing of care proceedings in the proper manner, but the misuse of it is a denial of the fundamental rights of both the parents and the child.
When asking a parent to consent to a placement under S20, the social worker must follow the below guidance, as laid out in a recent case law:
- Parents must give valid consent to Section 20 accommodation; their agreement must be real. If parents are prevented from objecting to Section 20 accommodation (by being subject to bail conditions preventing them from caring for their children, for example), this may be enough to make it lawful;
- The parents must be able to understand what they are being asked to agree to;
- The parents must have all the relevant information;
- Removing a child under S20 must be fair and proportionate;
- Parents must be told they have a right to take legal advice;
- Parents must be told they have a right to withdraw their consent.
Every case must be reviewed within four weeks of the child being provided with accommodation and a second review must follow after that within three months. After this second review, the reviews must be at least every six months. The LA should be considering whether or not the child can go home at these review meetings.
The consequences of S20 failings for local authorities are severe. Several local authorities have been hit by financial penalties for failing in their duties under this section. The highest amount awarded so far is £20,000 (£10,000 to the child and £10,000 to the parent).
If you find yourself being asked to agree to a S20 placement, please contact me on 01752 674999 or by email: [email protected] before entering into such agreement. The Plymouth care team is contactable on 01752 674999 and the Exeter care team on 01392 421777.