LEGAL CASE NOTES: R (S) V SUTTON LBC
Following a chaotic upbringing, S was convicted of robbery and assaulting her mother. She was given a detention and training order. In November 2006, she was discharged from detention aged 17. Because she was unable to live with her family, S approached the London Borough of Sutton’s social services department for assistance. They offered S a place in a hostel which she reluctantly accepted because it was all that was on the table. Sutton argued that the hostel placement was made under homelessness legislation and could therefore be funded by S making a claim for housing benefit and that, subsequently, she would not be owed any support under leaving care legislation. S challenged Sutton’s interpretation. The matter came before the Court of Appeal.
The underlying issue:
There are two schemes for the accommodation of vulnerable homeless young people. Since 2002, the general rule in England is that housing departments accommodate most homeless 16- and 17-year-olds. This is because they now automatically have a “priority need” under the homelessness legislation. However, this does not apply in the case of children in need, whom local authorities are obliged to accommodate under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. These children are considered looked-after and therefore also eligible for leaving care services, while those accommodated under homelessness legislation are not. There is evidence that some authorities are discouraging the use of section 20 accommodation in order to prevent leaving care obligations – and the costs associated with meeting them – arising.
The court’s decision:
The Court of Appeal held that S’s placement at the hostel was made under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 and that Sutton could not avoid their obligations under section 20 merely by labelling the placement as having been made under homelessness legislation. S must have appeared to them to be a child in need whose usual carers were prevented from caring for her. As a result, the hostel placement must have been made under section 20.
The practice implications:
As the Court of Appeal said, a council cannot “side-step” its duties to accommodate 16- and 17-year-old children in need merely by stating that they are accommodated under homelessness legislation. Where a 16- or 17-year-old child in need is released from detention with no home to go to, it is virtually inevitable that any accommodation provided will be provided under section 20. The general welfare obligations under the Children Act 1989 therefore apply.
● Ed Mitchell is a solicitor, editor of Social Care Law Today and Community Care’s legal expert