Councils may be liable for huge damages after a landmark
judgement by the European Court of Human Rights ruled that they
were legally responsible for failing to intervene in cases of
The move comes after the court in Strasbourg awarded four
siblings damages of £320,000 for abuse of their human rights
plus £39,000 for costs and expenses.
In effect the ruling removed the immunity social services
departments have from legal action if they fail to discharge their
The children had been abused by their parents over five years,
and despite Bedfordshire Council being aware of this, it failed to
intervene until the mother threatened to batter her children unless
they were taken in to care.
The official solicitor, acting on the children’s behalf, had
taken the government to the ECHR because it was the only remedy
open to them at the time they decided to take legal action.
The judges unanimously agreed that article 3 of the Human Rights
Act, the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment, had been
violated. They decided by 15 votes to two that the right to effect
legal remedy, article 13, had also been violated.
Rob Hutchinson, Association of Directors of Social Services
children and families committee chairperson, said: “Obviously we
are concerned that this retrospective opportunity could open the
flood gates for similar types of claims.”
He added: “The implications could be, in the context of
incidents that happened many years ago when legislation and
practice was very different, increasing litigation, soaring legal
costs and most worrying of all an overtly cautious approach to
practice which could lead to more children coming into care.”
Lyn Burns, Bedfordshire’s director of social services, said: “We
regret the suffering of the children prior to our intervention.
Equally it was a long time ago and it is important to state that we
have reviewed our procedures since then.
“It was possible to directly show our failure to act led to the
circumstances that caused the emotional damage to these
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