Judge settles dispute between councils over responsibility for child in need

In R (on the application of Sandra Stewart) v the London
Boroughs of Wandsworth, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Lambeth, the
court was faced with a situation where three councils all denied
that they were the appropriate authority to consider providing
services for a child in need.

Stewart had been found by Hammersmith to be intentionally
homeless and therefore was owed only a limited duty (because of her
children) to be provided with housing. Hammersmith provided housing
in accommodation in Lambeth. The children went to school in

Hammersmith’s duty to provide housing under homelessness
legislation came to an end and the only prospect of support was
pursuant to section 17 of the Children Act 1989, which places a
duty on councils to provide a range of services to safeguard and
promote the welfare of children in need “within their area”.

Hammersmith argued that the children were not physically in
their area and therefore were not their responsibility.

Lambeth said the children were only in their area because
Hammersmith had placed them there and therefore they remained
Hammersmith’s responsibility.

Wandsworth said as the children did not live in its area they
were not its responsibility.

The deputy judge (Mr Beatson QC) decided to take physical
presence as the most sensible test to apply. On this basis both
Wandsworth and Lambeth were under a duty to assess the claimant’s
children, but Hammersmith was not.

The deputy judge stated that if there was evidence that councils
were dumping families in other authorities’ areas to avoid
responsibility under section 17, then Parliament would have to
consider amending section 17.

Comment: The judgement clarifies who is carry out a Children Act
assessment when there are a number of possible choices, and makes
it clear also that more than one council can have the
responsibility (for example where a child goes to school in a
different area to which he or she lives, or where a child spends
time with parents who themselves live in different areas).

Stephen Cragg

Doughty Street Chambers

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