Councils must assess vulnerable homeless 16- and 17-year-olds for their eligibility for looked-after children’s services, rather than more limited housing support, a Law Lords ruling made clear this week.
The Lords criticised Hammersmith and Fulham Council, west London, for failing to refer a young woman made homeless shortly before her 17th birthday to children’s services, instead dealing with her purely through its housing department under homelessness legislation.
The woman, known as M, had already been involved in offending, when her terminally-ill mother said she could no longer live at home, in February 2005.
Catalogue of hostel placements and offending
Over the next year she was placed in a string of hostels and bed and breakfasts and convicted of a number of offences, receiving a four-month detention and training order in January 2006.
But if she had been deemed a looked-after child under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, she would have been entitled to much greater levels of support, including leaving care services.
The Lords followed lower courts in dismissing her claim, brought by the Howard League for Penal Reform, that she should retrospectively be deemed a looked-after child and thus entitled to leaving care support.
But in what the Howard League claimed was a key judgement, it said the council should have referred her to children’s services.
Under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, councils must treat 16- or 17-year-olds as looked-after if they have no one to take parental responsibility for them and they believe their welfare would otherwise be “likely to be seriously prejudiced”.
In her judgement, Baroness Hale, one of the Law Lords, cited government guidance pointing out that council housing departments must refer homeless 16- or 17-year-olds to children’s services if they are uncertain over their Children Act status.
Councils ‘must not shirk duties’
Following the judgement, Howard League director Frances Crook said: “Today’s judgement in the highest court in the land should ensure all local authorities heed the guidance and stop shirking their duties to these children in need.”
However, Antony Lillis, Hammersmith and Fulham’s cabinet member for community and children’s services, said, “Although we’re delighted that three successive judges have ruled in our favour, we’re disappointed that the Howard League chose to use this young person to promote their own agenda in the first place. We take our responsibilities to young people very seriously and we will continue to work with other people in the borough to support them appropriately.”