House of Lords has overturned a controversial ruling that had opened the way
for greater intervention by the courts in the way local authorities carry out
care plans, writes Alex Dobson.
Last year the Court of Appeal proposed the introduction of a system of
‘starred’ milestones in care plans which meant that the court could intervene
if they felt that the welfare of the child was being undermined when
significant milestones were not achieved within a reasonable time.
That decision followed serious concerns that local authorities were failing to
follow through with the care plans that had been agreed for the children in
their care and children were suffering as a result.
But Bedfordshire county council who appealed against last year’s decision
argued in court that if implemented the new system would leave vulnerable
children at greater risk and that the system would be unworkable in practice
and there was no basis in law for its introduction.
Brian Piggott, portfolio holder for children’s social services at Bedfordshire
county council, said:
"We are pleased with the decision by the House of Lords. The key issue for
us is the protection of children at risk, and there was a real possibility that
had we lost this case, care proceedings could be unduly prolonged and the
ability of local authorities to respond to the changing circumstances of
children in care could have been subject to time consuming, expensive and
unnecessary court proceedings.
The Appeal Court’s proposal to ‘star’ plans
would have delayed significantly the process of implementing those plans and
diverted scarce resources from other pressing demands."
while agreeing that the judges had gone too far by reinterpreting the Children
Act 1989 to accommodate the proposed system, the law lords stressed that the
government needed to take action on the practical and legal problems in the
child-care system that the decision had highlighted.
Judges said one question that now required urgent consideration was whether
some degree of court supervision over care packages would bring about an
overall improvement in the quality of care provided by local authorities. Child
law experts are now urging Parliament to find a way to end shortcomings in the
“The view, widespread among family judges, is that all too often local
authorities’ discharge of their parental responsibilities falls short of an
acceptable standard,” said Lord Nicholls one of the three law lords who heard
Katherine Gieve, chair of the children’s committee of the Solicitor’s family
law association said that the Court of Appeal had identified real shortcomings
in the rights of the child to ensure that the local authority carried out its
She added, “A way needs to be found now that will protect children and make
sure that care plans are carried out by local authorities."
The House of Lords allowed appeals by Bedfordshire county council and the
health secretary, Alan Milburn, who had taken the children of a depressive
mother and an emotionally detached father into care. They also dismissed an
appeal by the mother of three children from Torbay, Devon, who was asking for a
full care order to be replaced by an interim order.