Supreme Court rules local authorities can be held liable for failing to protect children from harm

In a much-awaited judgment handed down today (6 June), the Supreme Court has restored the right of children and young people to sue for negligence where a local authority has failed to protect them from harm. 

Article 39 and The Care Leavers’ Association jointly intervened in this landmark case, after a Court of Appeal decision in 2017 ruled against negligence liability in child protection because, among other things, this could lead to defensive decision-making by social workers. This blanket position has now been successfully overturned.

Today’s ruling clarifies that local authorities can be held to have a duty of care when they are carrying out their statutory child protection functions in respect of children for whom they have not previously accepted responsibility (by virtue of a care order for example). This has very important and welcome implications for children living in a variety of institutional settings and for care leavers.

Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:

“We are incredibly relieved that the Supreme Court has reinstated the potential for children and young people to bring negligence claims against local authorities who have failed to protect them from harm. We are particularly concerned about the continuing scandals of mistreatment in child prisons and local authorities’ failures to take robust, protective action. Just this week inspectors have reported that children in Oakhill secure training centre and Feltham young offender institution have been inflicted with pain-inducing restraint techniques which the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has condemned as a form of child abuse.” 

David Graham, National Director of The Care Leavers’ Association, said:

“A court ruling that a local authority had a duty of care and acted negligently can give care leavers a real sense of justice and vindication, as well as financial compensation for harm that should never have happened. We hope the courts will now quickly deal with the backlog of cases from adults who were failed as children.”

Prior to the Court of Appeal decision in December 2017, local authorities had been held to have a duty of care in respect of their child protection functions (with liability to be decided by the facts of each case) since July 2003 following appeals brought by three separate families

Both of our charities are sorry that the claimants in this particular case were not successful in their negligence claim. Two young boys, one described as “severely disabled”, and their mother were subject to sustained and serious harassment from neighbours. They had been placed in their accommodation by Poole Council. One of the boys was the subject of a child protection plan. The family’s legal challenge was initially focused on the failings of the housing authority rather than children’s social care but it was the latter claim which progressed to the Supreme Court. 

Article 39 and The Care Leavers’ Association were represented by Oliver Studdert and Peter Garsden from Simpson Millar Solicitors and Aswini Weereratne QC, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Nicholas Brown from Doughty Street Chambers.

Poole Borough Council (Respondent) v GN (through his litigation friend “The Official Solicitor”) and another (Appellants)