Courts to vet care plans

Social services departments that “interfere” with family life by
taking children into care will be placed under closer scrutiny by
the courts after a landmark decision by the court of appeal last

Under the ruling, the first to consider the impact of the Human
Rights Act 1998 on child care plans, judges will be entitled to
demand more information from social workers in individual cases and
to refuse care and adoption orders where intervention is considered

Social services departments will now be under a duty to report
to the courts if a care plan breaks down or if a planned family
reunion or adoption does not occur within an acceptable

Lady Justice Hale urged courts to “beware a rose-tinted view of
what can be achieved” by social services departments and said they
“must hesitate to make care orders unless satisfied that this is
indeed the best option for the child”.

Not every breach of a care plan would amount to a violation of a
child’s human rights, she said, but local authorities were duty
bound to provide full information to the courts and to keep judges
up-to-date on a child’s progress in care.

Any major changes in care plans should be reported to the court
and judges are entitled to demand updated information if there is a
real risk of a child’s rights under the European Convention on
Human Rights being violated, she ruled.

The ruling was made in two test cases concerning Torbay and
Bedfordshire Councils in which care orders were challenged under
the Human Rights Act.

The first involved three children from Torbay where the mother’s
partner had physically, sexually and emotionally abused the eldest.
Last year a county court judge made care orders in respect of all
three children. The mother had failed to protect the children and
had joined in the “emotional abuse”, but the ultimate aim of the
social workers was to reunite her with at least the two younger
children. The court of appeal dismissed the mother’s appeal, ruling
that full care orders had been justified in the circumstances.

In the second case, a Luton couple had their family life
seriously disrupted by the mother’s mental health problems. Care
orders were made in respect of the couple’s two sons last year.
Lady Justice Hale overturned the full care orders and replaced them
with interim orders. The judge should have “insisted on more
information” from social workers or demanded they report back to
him if the care plan did not develop as expected, she ruled.

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