What you need to know
there is no one who has parental responsibility for them
they are lost or abandoned
the person who has been caring for them is prevented (whether or not permanently) from providing them with suitable accommodation or care.
There are many circumstances where section 20 is used in practice, including parental illness and difficulties or with unaccompanied children from abroad.
In thinking about or preparing for care proceedings, section 20 may be used as a way to further support a child and parent (for example, as part of a mutually agreed package of support) or as a short-term measure pending the commencement of care proceedings.
There has been a great deal of interest in the correct use of Section 20. Key to understanding the correct use of this element is that Section 20 accommodation was not designed for long term use. This has been clarified in recent case law clarifying the principles of parental consent. It is important for social work practitioners to stay informed of current case law.
The most recent case law has led to authorities reviewing their cohort of children accommodated under Section 20, and sector-led guidance being issued.
Section 20 implies the child is accomodated with the agreement of those with parental reponsibility for the child. It is of vital importance that parents who agree to the accommodation of their child do so in an informed way. This is known as informed consent. It must be understood that ill or uninformed consent can be seen as nothing more than fear of reprisal or at worst coercion to agree and will not be considered to be consent. It is therefore, important that any consenting parent is able to make informed consent.
There has been a spate of case law concerning the misuse of section 20 – covering issues such as:
- local authorities exercising “compulsion in disguise”
- signing and recording of an “agreement”
- lenght of accomodation under section 20
- arrangements to return a child upon withdrawal of parental consent
- award of damages for breach of human rights.
Across the country local authorities are developing examples of evidence showing work with families to demonstrate informed and cooperative consent. The transparency project is a development of this work and other local examples are in use.
The Family Rights Group has produced advice sheets that can be used to explain section 20 agreements to families.
It is important for practitioners to stay informed of current case law and professional development must include a process for professionals to capture learning from judgments. Current examples of case law cover issues such as consent as well as recording agreements in section 20 accomodations include:
- Re CA (A Baby)  EWHC 2190 (Fam) and added to by the President of the Family Division in N (Children) (Adoption: Jurisdiction)  EWCA Civ 1112: addressing the individual social worker’s personal duty to be satisfied that the parent(s) act with capacity, and give properly informed consent
- Williams & Anor v London Borough of Hackney  EWHC 2629: provides a summary of the legal framework and obtaining and recording consent. Later added to by London Borough of Hackney-v-Williams and Williams  EWCA Civ 26: examining whether parental consent is necessary for accommodation of a child under s20
- Re W (Children)  EWCA Civ 1065: regarding recording of agreements
- Northamptonshire County Council v AS and Ors  EWHC 199 (Fam): reflecting issues with the lenght of accomodation of very young children under s20 before care proceedings are issued
- Medway Council v M&T  EWFC B164: relating to the award of damages for breach of article 8 rights
- N (Children) (Adoption: Jurisdiction)  EWCA Civ 1112: looking into the issues of ‘misuse and abuse of section 20’ and a summary of the particular problems with its use in some cases. Also offers guidance for ‘future good practice’.