Guidance issued on s. 20 Children Act amid fears councils could misinterpret law

Cafcass, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and ADSS Cymru have published guidance aimed at clarifying the expectations on local authorities for children looked after under s. 20 of the Children Act 1989.

The move follows recent judicial criticism – including in Re N [2015] EWCA Civ 1112 – and sector concerns about use of the section.

The three organisations stressed that being looked after under s. 20 of the Children Act 1989 “remains a viable option for many children despite the recent concern, expressed by the judiciary and others in the sector, at cases where children have been left to ‘drift’ without decent care plans in place, with those children suffering harm or detriment as a result”.

The guidance, which can be viewed here, also confirms that local authorities should review all open s. 20 cases “to ensure that s.20 status remains the appropriate current legal option and framework for the child”.

The document also covers:

  • Best practice with newborn babies;
  • Positive use of s. 20;
  • Duties and responsibilities of a local authority to its child on s. 20 in England.

“All children’s social workers are expected to familiarise themselves with this guidance and to see it being applied in cases,” they said.

The three organisations behind the guidance highlighted how there is no existing statutory guidance on the general use of s. 20.

Anthony Douglas, Cafcass chief executive, said: “Up to 30% of children who are looked after by a local authority are done so under s. 20. In the absence of clear guidance for the use of s. 20, there was a real risk that recent court judgements could lead local authorities to misinterpret the law, and to always issue care proceedings when a child becomes looked after. However, s. 20 remains an option which will be the right approach for many children.

“We have agreed this guidance around s. 20 to clarify expectations and ensure that local authorities interpret the law correctly and in a strengths-based way, without disregarding risk.”

Andrew Webb, the ADCS family justice lead, said: “The recent rise in applications for care and supervision orders in respect of children and young people accommodated voluntarily, and Sir James Munby’s detailed ruling at the end of last year, underpin this work.

“S. 20 placements are an important legal option and are most obviously appropriate where the child’s parent is unable to care for them due to a hospital admission, for example. Short breaks for children with additional needs are also accommodated under s20."

Mike Nicholson, the ADSS Cymru family justice lead said: “We hope this note will help social workers to remain confident in their professional decisions when they use s. 20 to accommodate children.

“Producing this guidance is a clear example of the sector coming together to support social workers throughout England and Wales in making the right plans for children.”

In Wales from 6 April 2016 the Social Services and Well-being Wales Act 2014 (SSW(W) Act 2014) will apply and s. 76 will replace s. 20 of the Children Act 1989 in Wales. References to s. 20 should therefore be read as references to s. 76 in Wales.

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