Quashing the child protection investigation: self-serving or breaching the dam?

Yesterday I posted on our case of AB & Anor, R (on the application of) v The London Borough of Haringey [2013] EWHC 416 (Admin) (13 March 2013). I said,

“I want to focus for now, in two posts, on two criticisms that have inevitably been made about our challenge to Haringey. In doing so, I can highlight two points of wider relevance that the case has achieved, that are comparatively unusual.”

This is the second of the two posts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the second criticism that I wanted to focus on has already been presaged in the comments on the first post. The first post focussed on criticisms that would be likely to come from those on the child-rescue side of the child-rescue versus family-preservation debate (if you’re not familiar with the debate, or with it being framed in these terms, there’s a very thoughtful post by @suesspiciousmin here: Family Preservation versus Child Rescue). This second post focuses on criticisms that have been expressed from the other side, and it’s this:

“They only won because they were social workers themselves. Ordinary parents wouldn’t have won.”

[Once again, if you don’t know the case I am talking about, you can read commentary from:

The Guardian: Couple falsely accused of child abuse win damages from Haringey council

The BBC: Haringey’s social services child inquiry ruled unlawful

The Telegraph: Baby P council under fire for launching ‘unlawful’ abuse inquiry

The Mail: Parents’ social service hell after one anonymous letter]

The facts

So, briefly, an anonymous allegation is made to Haringey Social Services about parents who, it later transpires, are child protection professionals. Haringey seek information from the GP, asserting that they are undertaking a child protection investigation, and also from the school. Nothing damaging comes back, the GP says explicitly that he knows them well and has no concerns. They are contacted by mobile, and immediately challenge the lawfulness of what has gone on before; their challenge sets in motion a course of events which results in Haringey saying they are escalating to a full-blown child protection enquiry, which in due course is closed down, suspected of having been malicious, when no concerns are found.

OK, now let’s address the “they only won because they were social workers themselves” argument.

Briefly – to keep the HCPC off our backs on protection of title – I should point out that only one of them is a registered social worker with protected title (read the judgment here), and press reports suggesting otherwise are inaccurate. In fairness, however, both are child protection professionals, so the criticism could legitimately be rewritten, “they only won because they were child protection professionals themselves”.

Knowledge of child protection procedures

There are different points to make about their knowledge as child protection professionals, and their status as such.

It is unquestionably true that their knowledge was relevant. As the judgment records, at first contact, they realised that what had gone on before first contact must have been unlawful (paragraph 36). And it took a detailed inside knowledge of child protection procedures to realise this.

You might say that knowledge didn’t help. Fuelled by their knowledge, they challenged as they did; their challenge prompted the escalation. But I think it is probably fair to say that knowledge did help. Because when a social worker says, “tut, tut, you really shouldn’t challenge social workers like that”, the fact that your challenges turn out to be legally accurate, and your sense of grievance legally justified is likely to be going to help your cause.

Which, I fear, is a real hurdle for people who face equally wrong procedures, and whose sense of grievance is equally justified, but who lack the knowledge to express it accurately.

That is not fair. It’s also difficult for parents to address. It’s all very well saying that parents can arm themselves with knowledge about what should happen if contacted by a social worker, but many parents, like these parents, are caught on the hop with no forewarning that there had been concerns expressed, ever. Moreover, we had a couple of day’s legal argument in the High Court about what should have happened – are we really suggesting that what should have happened should be part of some sort of citizenship training for everyone? I think not!

Of course, if you do have warning, you could take time to acquire some knowledge and take some advice. Again @suesspiciousmin has posted some advice (with appropriate caveats and disclaimers):

You can say, if you wish, that @suesspiciousmin is a local authority care lawyer, and I (heaven forbid!) am not only a lawyer – albeit an independent one – but a registered social worker also, so neither of us can be trusted. But my advice is this: if you want knowledge that is going to help you win a challenge as AB and CD did, don’t go to the conspiracy theory websites. Don’t try to have your cake and eat it: AB and CD chose to stay inside the system, and to use the system’s rules. If you don’t want to do that, don’t be surprised if you don’t then get a sympathetic hearing.

Rant over. But the point on knowledge is made. It is a real hurdle, it gave an inbuilt advantage to AB and CD. But in fairness, why should it be up to parents to have knowledge anyway? Which brings me on to…

Duties of social workers

As I regularly argue, it is a social worker’s duty not only to get the law right, but also to be absolutely clear – and especially when using compulsion – that service users should be allowed to challenge and test whether they are doing so. The HCPC Standards of Proficiency for Social Workers in England include that social workers must:

“9.2    be able to work with service users and carers to enable them to assess and make informed decisions about their needs, circumstances, risks, preferred options and resources

9.3     be able to work with service users and carers to promote individual growth, development and independence and to assist them to understand and exercise their rights

9.4     be able to support service users’ and carers’ rights to control their lives and make informed choices about the services they receive” [my emphasis]

These are enforceable standards through regulation. Social workers acting professionally should be clear with service users that they are open to having the legitimacy of their actions challenged, and indeed how to do so. The BASW Code of Ethics is clearer than the HCPC Standards that assisting service users to understand and exercise rights includes rights vis-à-vis social workers themselves:

“Social workers should give people the information they need to make informed choices and decisions. They should enable people to access all information recorded about themselves, subject to any limitations imposed by law. Social workers should assist people to understand and exercise their rights including making complaints and other remedies.” [my emphasis]

This did not happen in this case, indeed it rather looks as though the opposite happened, that an attempt to assert rights received a hostile reception from Haringey (that, at least, is my reading of sub-paragraph (8) of paragraph 71 of the judgment).

So in point of fact, the law does not expect parents to have knowledge, it expects social workers to convey knowledge to parents, with regulatory consequences if they fail to do so.

Status

An alternative view of “they only won because they were child protection professionals themselves” is that it was their status that mattered – that they got special treatment because they were not “ordinary parents”.

Come on, credit where it’s due! There were social workers on both sides of this argument. Whoever won, there were going to be social workers who won. Or, if you prefer, whoever lost there were going to be social workers who lost. And the plain fact is that the statutory social workers acting as such lost the argument to the parents.

Moreover, this is a precedent – it is a case that will bind courts on similar facts in the future.

It’s worth saying a little more about that for a moment. There is an inherent problem within the family courts about challenging wrong procedures. The problem is this: because of the principle that the child’s welfare is the court’s paramount consideration, the court cannot punish the local authority for procedural errors or malpractice by failing to make the right order for the child. So the understandable perception is that the local authority gets away with the procedural errors. Prominent examples include:

But this case did not take place in the family courts. An inherent problem for parents was addressed by bringing the claim in judicial review. It is often argued that this is the remedy for procedural challenges, but it seems often not to happen.

In my experience, acting also for other parents who are not social workers, there are a range of reasons why it is unusual. All are in some way a little sad.

  • One is that if you lost in the family courts, it becomes more difficult, and therefore more risky, to argue that the procedural injustice needs a remedy. Would the outcome have been different had the social workers got the procedures right, and if not, why do you need a remedy? The answer to the first half of that question is, “possibly yes” and the answer to the second half is “because procedural justice matters”. But there is no doubt that the outcome – if you leave it that late – is put into the mix in reviewing merit.
  • A second is that if you have been fighting to keep your child, whether or not in care proceedings, and have succeeded, you will often just want to put the whole horrific experience behind you and move on with your life.
  • A third is financial. For some, at least, there is non-means-tested legal aid in care proceedings. And care proceedings (again subject to exceptions) are not subject to the ‘loser pays the costs of the winner’ principle. Not so in judicial review. Legal aid, if available, is means-tested, and the general rule is that costs follow the event – i.e. that you run the risk of paying the local authority’s costs if you lose. Sad, because it brings sharply into focus that legal aid rules are relevant to whether you can access procedural justice.

Note, however, that none of this discussion about the difficulties in getting procedural justice amounts to saying, “they only won because they were child protection professionals”. It is not true.

Moreover, it downplays the quite important precedent that applies to anyone and everyone subject to similar procedures. This case sets out at some length the differences between initial screening, initial assessment and child protection investigations. True, it isn’t or oughtn’t to be news, as all three of these are clearly set out in the relevant statutory guidance ‘Working Together’. But the relevance and applicability of the statutory guidance was contested. The relevance and applicability of the statutory guidance was upheld.

And the relevance and applicability of procedural justice was not – nor should it be – confined to child protection professionals.

Allan Norman (@CelticKnotTweet) is a registered social worker and a solicitor at Celtic Knot – Solicitors and Social Workers. He acted for AB and CD in the successful judicial review of Haringey LBC discussed here.