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Judgments - R (on the application of G) (FC) (Appellant) v London Borough of Southwark (Respondents)


SESSION 2008-09

[2009] UKHL 26

on appeal from:[2008]EWCA Civ 877




R (on the application of G) (FC) (Appellant) v London Borough of Southwark (Respondents)

Appellate Committee

Lord Hope of Craighead

Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe

Baroness Hale of Richmond

Lord Mance

Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury



Ian Wise

Azeem Suterwalla

(Instructed by Fisher Meredith LLP)


Bryan McGuire

Peggy Etiebet

(Instructed by Legal Services Department, London Borough of Southwark)


Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

Steven Kovats (written submissions only)

(Instructed by Treasury Solicitors)

Hearing dates:

25 and 26 MARCH 2009






R (on the application of G) (FC) (Appellant) v London Borough of Southwark (Respondents)

[2009] UKHL 26


My Lords,

1.  I have had the advantage of reading in draft the opinion of my noble and learned friend Baroness Hale of Richmond. I agree with it, and for the reasons she gives I would allow the appeal.


My Lords,

2.  I have had the advantage of reading in draft the opinion of my noble and learned friend Baroness Hale of Richmond. I agree with it, and for the reasons that she gives I would allow the appeal.


My Lords,

3.  The human issue in this case is simple to state. If a child of 16 or 17 who has been thrown out of the family home presents himself to a local children’s services authority and asks to be accommodated by them under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, is it open to that authority instead to arrange for him to be accommodated by the local housing authority under the homelessness provisions of Part VII of the Housing Act 1996? The issue matters, as Rix LJ pointed out in the Court of Appeal, “because a child, even one on the verge of adulthood, is considered and treated by Parliament as a vulnerable person to whom the state, in the form of the relevant local authority, owes a duty which goes wider than the mere provision of accommodation": [2008] EWCA Civ 877, [2009] 1 WLR 34, para 35.

4.  Section 20 contains several duties and powers to accommodate children, the relevant one for present purposes being in subsection (1):

“Every local authority shall provide accommodation for any child in need within their area who appears to them to require accommodation as a result of

(a) there being no person who has parental responsibility for him;

(b) his being lost or having been abandoned;

(c) the person who has been caring for him being prevented (whether or not permanently, and for whatever reason) from providing him with suitable accommodation or care.”

This subsection contains two technical terms which require explanation. Most important is a “child in need", defined in section 17(10) of the 1989 Act:

“For the purposes of this Part a child shall be taken to be in need if -

(a) he is unlikely to achieve or maintain, or to have the opportunity of achieving or maintaining, a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision for him of services by a local authority under this Part;

(b) his health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without the provision for him of such services; or

(c) he is disabled.”

Although not relevant in this case, “parental responsibility” is also a technical term, covering all the legal powers and duties of parents, and is only held by parents, guardians and people with the benefit of certain orders or agreements under the 1989 Act: see ss 4, 4A, 12 and 33.

5.  It comes as something of a surprise that the issue has had to reach this House, in the light of the observations in R (M) v Hammersmith and Fulham London Borough Council [2008] UKHL 14, [2008] 1 WLR 535 as to what ought to have happened in the reverse situation. There the child had approached the housing authority and asked them to accommodate her. The House made it clear that she should have been referred to the children’s authority for assessment. It was not contemplated that, had she been assessed as falling within the criteria in section 20(1), she might nevertheless have been referred back to the housing department. As was said then, at para 4 (but see also paras 15, 31 and 42):

“. . . the clear intention of the legislation is that these children need more than a roof over their heads and that local children’s services authorities cannot avoid their responsibilities towards this challenging age group by passing them over to the local housing authorities.”

6.  It is worth noting that neither the factual nor the legal problem was likely to arise before 2002. Before then, there was little prospect of a 16 or 17 year old being independently accommodated under the homelessness legislation. Local housing authorities only have a duty under the 1996 Act to “secure that accommodation is available” where they have reason to believe that the applicant “may . . . have a priority need” (for the interim duty to accommodate under section 188(1)) or are satisfied that he does have a priority need (for the longer term duty under section 193). While people with dependent children were expressly listed among those with priority need under section 189(1)(b), children themselves were not and so could only qualify if they were regarded as “vulnerable as a result of . . . other special reason” under section 18(1)(d). Under the Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002 (SI 2002/2051), article 3, however, children aged 16 and 17 were expressly included in the list. So there was now a real possibility that they might be owed duties under the homelessness legislation. But two groups of children are excluded from those in priority need under article 3: those to whom a children’s authority owe a duty under section 20 and “relevant” children who have previously been looked after by a local authority (see para 6). As was said in the Hammersmith and Fulham case, at para 31:

“Such a young person has needs over and above the simple need for a roof over her head and these can better be met by social services. Unless the problem is relatively short-term, she will then become an eligible child, and social services accommodation will also bring with it the additional responsibilities to help and support her in the transition to independent adult living. It was not intended that social services should be able to avoid those responsibilities by looking to the housing authority to accommodate the child.”

7.  The legal issue therefore resolves itself into one of construction: what do the criteria in section 20(1) mean and how, if at all, is their application affected by the other duties of children’s authorities, in particular under section 17 of the 1989 Act, and by the duties of housing authorities under the 1996 Act?

8.  Before moving on to the facts of this case, it is worth noticing two other developments which have brought the issue into sharper focus recently. One is the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, which came into force in 2001. The 1989 Act had always contained a duty to “advise and befriend", and a power to “give assistance", to young people under 21 who had been looked after by local authorities and voluntary organisations (see section 24). But the 2000 Act introduced much more specific duties towards “eligible” 16 and 17 year olds whom they were looking after (see 1989 Act, sched 2, para 19B) and, more importantly, towards such children when they ceased to be looked after by the children’s authority and became “relevant” children for this purpose (see 1989 Act, sections 23A, 23B and 23C). Some of these new duties could extend beyond childhood up to the age of 21 or even 24 if the young person was pursuing a planned course of education and training. The general aim of these new responsibilities was to provide a child or young person with the sort of parental guidance and support which most young people growing up in their own families can take for granted but which those who are separated or estranged from their families cannot.

9.  The other relevant development was an influx of unaccompanied asylum seeking children. By definition, they were ineligible for housing under the 1996 Act and so their only source of publicly provided accommodation was the local children’s authority. Children’s authorities shouldered that burden, but disputes arose as to whether they were doing so under section 20, in which case the further “leaving care” obligations arose, or whether they were doing so under some other power, in which case those obligations did not arise: see R (H) v Wandsworth London Borough Council [2007] EWHC 1082 (Admin), [2007] 2 FLR 822. This same “labelling” problem arose in other cases where the children’s authority had arranged accommodation for a child but was reluctant to accept that it had done so under section 20: see R (L) v Nottinghamshire County Council [2007] EWHC 2364; R (D) v Southwark London Borough Council [2007] EWCA Civ 182, [2007] 1 FLR 2181; R (S) v Sutton London Borough Council [2007] EWCA Civ 790, 10 CCLR 615. The message of those cases is that if the section 20 duty has arisen and the children’s authority have provided accommodation for the child, they cannot “side-step” the issue by claiming to have acted under some other power.

10.  In particular, they cannot claim simply to have been acting under the general duty in section 17(1):

“It shall be the general duty of every local authority (in addition to the other duties imposed upon them by this Part) -

(a) to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need; and

(b) so far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families,

by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs.”

Section 17(6) makes it clear that:

“The services provided by a local authority in the exercise of functions conferred on them by this section may include providing accommodation and giving assistance in kind or, in exceptional circumstances, in cash.”

11.   Once again, therefore, we are back to the meaning of section 20.

The history of this case

12.  The appellant, A, was born in 1990 in Somalia and came to this country with his mother and siblings in 1998. He was granted indefinite leave to remain in 2005. He left school after completing his GCSE examinations in 2006. Relations with his mother deteriorated during 2007 and in June she excluded him from home. He approached the local housing authority and they attempted mediation between mother and son. This was unsuccessful and he was once again excluded from home in July. After that he was, as Rix LJ put it, “sofa surfing", sleeping on friends’ sofas or in cars, until 10 September 2007, when he consulted solicitors: [2009] 1 WLR 34, para 30. They immediately advised him to present himself to the children’s services department, armed with a letter from them requesting an urgent assessment of his needs under section 17 of the 1989 Act and immediate accommodation under section 20(1).

13.  He was asked some questions but not offered accommodation that day. The solicitors wrote again on 11 September, reserving the right to bring judicial review proceedings without further notice if a satisfactory reply were not received by the following day. This time A was referred to a social worker, Mr Brims, for assessment and given bed and breakfast accommodation in Gipsy Hill that night. On 12 September, the authority replied that the initial assessment had begun, that his mother was willing to have him back, and that they had discovered that “his immigration status (of having indefinite leave to remain) would mean that he is not prohibited from receiving temporary accommodation through the housing department". Hence they declined to accommodate him under section 20. As it happened, his mother was not prepared to have him back and he continued to be provided with accommodation in Gipsy Hill.

14.  The initial assessment was completed on 18 September. This is a substantial document, which covers a wide range of issues in accordance with the guidance given in the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families (Department of Health, 2000). It compares very favourably with the assessments done by the housing department in the Hammersmith and Fulham case and illustrates vividly how much better suited the children’s services are to consider and cater for the many needs of these vulnerable young people.

15.  The most important factual conclusions were that “A presents overtly as a 17 year old boy with housing and educational needs, and to be homeless due to family breakdown. Further discussions with A have revealed that he may also have some involvement in gang activity . . . “ Attempts had been made at reconciling mother and son, but “A has been resolute in his view that he would not return to his mother’s home", while the social worker was “concerned that [the mother] may not be committed to reconciling the situation with A at this time". He was also “concerned that A has withheld information around his possible connections to gang activity, and possible other issues regarding his family or personal history which may be playing a role in his current situation. . . . I cannot say whether these factors are significant for A in terms of safety or personal development.” His conclusion was:

“Therefore the primary needs identified here for A relate to Housing and Education. Having examined the information available, I see or have not been made aware [of] any additional needs or vulnerabilities that would suggest the need for longer-term accommodation being provided by Social Services. A is 17 years of age and not in full-time education at this point in time, therefore I feel that accommodation provided by Southwark HPU [Homeless Persons Unit] and referrals to other support agencies . . . will be sufficient at this time to work on addressing the social, emotional and practical issues identified in this assessment.”

There followed a list of recommended referrals, not only to the HPU, but also to other sources of help and support. Principal among these was the children’s authority’s own Family Resource Team, which could provide “ongoing social work support", help him in dealings with the Department for Work and Pensions in applying for benefits, explore holding a family group conference to work on reconciling him with his mother, link in with his prospective college and provide any support necessary for his enrolment, and refer him to an agency giving housing and careers advice. This scarcely suggests that all A needed was a roof over his head.

16.  This assessment was sent to A’s solicitors, who wrote pointing out that it revealed that A was a child in need who fell within section 20(1)(c) of the 1989 Act. This prompted the local authority’s decision letter of 20 September, which stated that:

“Our client department has fully considered your client’s needs and reached the decision that section 20 is not appropriate as A has no identified need for social services support, and his needs can be satisfactorily met through provision of housing and referrals to other support agencies. . . .

Our client department has fulfilled its duty to assess your client and reached the decision that he is not in need of section 20 accommodation; he simply requires ‘help with accommodation'.”

17.  Thereafter A continued for some time to be provided with accommodation at Gipsy Hill. The local authority claim that this was provided under the 1996 Act. A claims that, as the duty to provide accommodation under section 20(1) had arisen, he was in fact accommodated under that section. If so, it is not in dispute that he was an “eligible child” within the meaning of paragraph 19B of schedule 2 to the 1989 Act and became a “ former relevant child” within the meaning of section 23C(1) of that Act when he turned 18.

18.  Judicial review proceedings were begun on 28 September 2007. They failed before Simon J, who held that the criteria in section 20(1) were not met and so no duty arose: CO/8543/2007, 15 November 2007. The Court of Appeal, by a majority, dismissed his appeal: [2008] EWCA Civ 877, [2009] 1 WLR 34. The authority were entitled to conclude that he required only “help with accommodation” under section 17 and not accommodation under section 20(1). Rix LJ dissented: the test under section 20(1) was not the broad test of whether the child in question needed to be “looked after” but the much narrower test of whether the child appeared to require accommodation as a result of finding himself alone in one of the situations set out in section 20(1) (a) to (c) (para 77). A now appeals to this House.

The arguments

19.  The argument presented by Mr Wise on behalf of A is simplicity itself. He acknowledges that the assessment of need under section 20(1) involves an evaluative judgment on the part of the local children’s authority. But in this case, he says, all the elements required by section 20(1) were met. Indeed it is common ground (i) that A was a “child in need” at the relevant time, (ii) that he was within the area of the local authority, and (iii) that he lacked accommodation as a result of his mother being prevented from providing him with suitable accommodation or care within the meaning of section 20(1)(c). If he lacked accommodation for one of those reasons he “required accommodation” within the meaning of section 20(1), even if there was another way in which accommodation might be found for him.

20.  Mr Kovats made written submissions on behalf of the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (with the support of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government). The presumption must be that all lone children who meet the criteria in section 20(1) must be accommodated by children’s services authorities, “at least until their needs have been properly assessed and plans are in place to address those needs” (para 53). Thus the authority should presume that any homeless child should be accommodated unless he is not a child in need (para 54). The authority must then carry out a core assessment (para 55). If attempts at getting the child back home fail, there might be cases in which “the child’s long term needs might best be met by the provision of support to move to accommodation where he can live independently without the need to be a looked after child". This might be done under section 17 (para 56). Nevertheless, he submits that the reasoning of Rix LJ is to be preferred to that of the majority: if the child is in need, does not have accommodation, and comes within paragraphs (a), (b) or (c), the duty under section 20(1) is triggered.

21.  Mr McGuire, for the local authority, argues that this is too simple an approach. In deciding whether a child “requires accommodation” under section 20(1), the authority are entitled to take into account the other sources of accommodation which may be available to the child and conclude that he does not require social services accommodation at all. All he requires is help to find or acquire that other accommodation, under the authority’s general duty to provide services under section 17. He acknowledges that, before 2002, alternative sources of accommodation would not generally have included the homeless persons unit. Now that they do, however, the children’s authority are entitled to conclude that this will suffice, even if other services are also required, rather than the whole paraphernalia of becoming a “looked after” child. He stresses that section 20 should be read in the light of the local authority’s functions under in section 17, and prays in aid certain passages from the opinion of my noble and learned friend Lord Hope of Craighead, in R (G) v Barnet London Borough Council [2003] UKHL 57, [2004] 2 AC 208, at paras 81 and 100.


22.  It is important to recall what the Barnet case and the linked cases of R (A) v Lambeth London Borough Council and R (W) v Lambeth London Borough Council were all about. In each case, what was wanted was accommodation for the children together with their mothers. In one case, the mother was a “person from abroad” who was ineligible for housing under the 1996 Act; in another, she had become homeless intentionally and thus was owed no duty under the 1996 Act; and in the third, her existing housing was unsuitable to the needs of her disabled children. It was not in issue whether the children were owed the duty under section 20(1); the issue was whether there was a duty to provide the whole family with accommodation, either under section 17 of the 1989 Act or, if the section 20 duty had arisen, by making arrangements to enable the children to live with their mother, under section 23(6). (Section 23 deals with the ways in which children’s authorities may provide accommodation for the children they are looking after.)

23.  By a majority, the House held that the “general duty” in section 17(1) of the 1989 Act was a “framework” duty owed to the local population and did not result in a mandatory duty to meet the assessed needs of every individual child regardless of resources. As Lord Hope pointed out, at para 83, that accords with the view of the Review of Child Care Law (Department of Health and Social Security, 1985), at para 5.8:

“We believe that the provisions should be stated clearly in general terms of making services available at an appropriate level to the needs of the area rather than in terms of duties owed to individual children or families, in order to leave local authorities a wide flexibility to decide what is appropriate in particular cases while providing for a reasonable overall level of provision. It is for local authorities to decide upon their priorities within the resources available to them.”

24.  On the other hand, the Act draws a distinction between the “general duty” in section 17(1) and the specific duties laid down elsewhere in Part III, including section 20. As Lord Hope made clear in para 81, these duties do leave important matters to the judgment of the authority. But once those matters have been decided in a particular way, it must follow that a duty is owed to the individual child. Thus Lord Hope was able to conclude, in para 100, that there was no doubt that the authorities were under a duty to provide accommodation under section 20(1) for the children of the two claimants who did not qualify for accommodation under the 1996 Act. The concern for children’s welfare which ran throughout Part III meant that the children should not suffer because their mother had come to this country or had become homeless intentionally. Thus these mothers were “prevented” within the meaning of section 20(1)(c) even though it was their own choice. The issue in those cases was whether the duty in section 23(6) to place such children with their families included a duty to provide housing for families who had none. It was not difficult to conclude that it did not.

25.  In my view, therefore, the Barnet case is, if anything, helpful to A, in highlighting the primacy of the specific duty owed to individuals in section 20 over the general duty owed to children in need and their families and its associated powers in section 17, just as the Hammersmith and Fulham case is helpful to A in highlighting the primacy of the Children Act over the Housing Act in providing for children in need.