Related Sector: Health & Social Care

On the 6th June 2019, the Supreme Court handed down its ground-breaking decision in the case of Poole Borough Council v GN & another [2019] UKSC 25.

The court found that social workers have a duty of care owed towards children and young people who are known to be at risk but not necessarily in care.

What are the potential ramifications for the Social Workers? 

In this case two children brought a claim in negligence against a local authority who failed to investigate and take action to protect them from the risks of sexual, physical or emotional harm.
The appeal was concerned with the liability of a local authority for what is alleged to have been a negligent failure to exercise its social services functions so as to protect children from harm caused by third parties.
The principal question of law which it raises is; whether a local authority or its employees may owe a common law duty of care to children affected by the manner in which it exercises or fails to exercise those functions, and if so, in what circumstances.

The facts:

The claimants, who have been given anonymity, seek damages for personal injuries suffered while they were children living in the area of the defendant council. They maintain that the injuries were suffered as a result of the council’s negligent failure to exercise its powers under the Children Act 1989 (“the 1989 Act”) so as to protect them from harm at the hands of third parties.
The claimants allege that in May 2006 they and their mother were placed by the council in a house on an estate in Poole next to a family who, to the council’s knowledge, persistently engaged in anti-social behaviour.
The claimants and their mother became the target of harassment and abuse at the hands of this family, which persisted over a period of several years until they were re-housed in December 2011.
This included vandalism of the mother’s car, attacks on the family home, threats of violence, verbal abuse, and physical assaults on the mother and one of the claimants.
As a result, the claimants suffered physical and psychological harm.
During the period in question, both claimants were identified by the council as children in need as defined in the 1989 Act, and had social workers allocated to them.
The claimants initially brought their claim on the basis that the council had been negligent in the exercise of both its housing functions and its functions under the 1989 Act. The claim was struck out by Master Edelman on the basis that no relevant duty of care towards the claimants arose out of the statutory powers and duties relied on.
The claimants appealed in relation the council’s functions under the 1989 Act only. The appeal was allowed by Mrs Justice Slade in the High Court.
The council further appealed to Court of Appeal.
The claimants then appealed to the Supreme Court, in which it found that the local authority and social workers have a duty of care owed towards children and young people who are known to be at risk but not necessarily in care.

What are the potential ramifications for the social worker?

  1. If a local authority has information within its possession that a third party may present as a risk to a child or young person and they fail to identify, investigate and protect the child or young person from potential harm then they could be sued in negligence.
  2. The claim would be pursued as a breach of the common law duty of care in relation to the social workers statutory powers under the Children Act 1989 rather than pursuant to sections 17 or 47 of the said Act.
  3. However, a local authority does not automatically owe a duty of care purely because it has statutory powers. However, they are under a common law duty to protect someone from harm from a third party if the local authority themselves have created the source of danger or assumed a responsibility to protect the claimant from harm. i.e. not placing both children in accommodation next door to a family who persistently engaged in anti-social behaviour having identified both children as children in need.

At Bond Solon we’re passionate about safeguarding children and young people by ensuring that the professionals working with them have the correct skills and knowledge to carry out their role to best practice.

We are always happy to support you and your workforce to ensure better outcomes for children. Please do not hesitate to contact me should you wish to discuss your training needs.
Many Thanks,

Zak McNally
Health and Social Care Manager
020 7549 2549

This article was first published on the 7th June 2019.

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