The Supreme Court upholds the strike out of claims seeking to impose a duty of care on a local authority arising out of its functions under the Children Act 1989
CN v Poole Borough Council [06.06.19]
In a welcomed decision, the Supreme Court has delivered its long-awaited judgment clarifying the scope of duties owed by local authorities. The court confirmed there is no assumption of responsibility arising out of the mere operation of social services functions, and except in defined exceptional categories, there is no duty of care to protect individuals from harm caused by third parties.
This case is uncharacteristic of what we usually see where such a claim is made, which tends to involve a child living with birth parents in abusive and chaotic homes. Here, the claimants were not at risk of harm from their mother - the threat came from a separate family whose only link was that they happened to live on the same housing estate.
In May 2006, two children (the claimants) and their mother were rehoused by the local authority (the defendant), to a housing estate known to have a family living there responsible for serious anti-social behaviour. Over the following years, the claimants and their mother were subject to a campaign of regular and significant harassment from the family.
In 2010, an independent report was commissioned by the Home Office, which was critical of the housing association, the local authority and the police and in December 2011, the claimants & their mother were relocated. In December 2014, claims were brought against the defendant, the police and the landlord including a claim brought by the mother, plus the claimants’ two claims – one of negligence and one based on the Housing Act.
The defendant successfully applied to strike out all three claims in October 2015, following which, only the claimants appealed and only with the negligence claim. In December 2017, the Court of Appeal declined to overturn the striking out of the claim – a decision that implied that local authorities may no longer be liable where children are left in potentially harmful environments.
The claimants once again appealed stating that the local authority had negligently failed to protect them from harm - suggesting that the local authority had breached their duty to:
protect children in their area and in particular children reported to them as being at foreseeable risk of harm.
The Supreme Court were unanimous in their decision that there was no basis for the claimant’s assertions and as such the claim remained struck out.
This decision will come as a relief to many authorities and their insurers, as it sensibly maintains the situation whereby decision making is not hampered by complexity.
What then, are the likely implications for local authorities moving forward?
It has long been the case that where a local authority investigates, or works with a family, firmly known to social services for reasons of safeguarding risks, there is a duty of a care to the individual child deemed to be at risk. Accordingly, the decision is unlikely to prevent claimants pursuing cases where a family has been in need of intervention in the past.