Social services discretion over housing families confirmed by court

In W v Lambeth LBC (3 May 2002) the court of appeal, very
unusually, reversed its own decision from only six months
previously. The case concerned the powers of local authorities to
provide accommodation to children in need and their parents under
section 17 of the Children Act 1989.

In this case W, the mother of two children born in 1987 and
1998, was evicted from her home in February 2001. She was found by
the local housing authority (Lambeth) to be intentionally homeless
because there were substantial arrears of rent. She applied
immediately to the local social services authority (also Lambeth)
for assistance in securing private sector housing for herself and
her two children as a family unit, but the authority declined to
help her. She was able to find temporary accommodation with a niece
between August 2001 and January 2002. She said that no other member
of her family was then able to help her to house her family.

At her solicitor’s request Lambeth social services carried out
assessments of the needs of her two children in January 2001. The
assessing officer found nothing exceptional in the case, and said
that the council’s social services department did not provide
accommodation for families (para 10). These proceedings were
initiated to challenge the result of those assessments.

On 8 March 2002 the court of appeal granted W permission to
apply for judicial review and directed that the substantive
application be heard by the court of appeal (para 1). On 9 April
the council completed further assessments of the children’s needs
on the basis, which it disputed, that it did have power to provide
assistance to the family. It again declined to make the provision
sought. It was these assessments which were under challenge at the

The court of appeal held that the majority decision of R(A) v
Lambeth was made without full citation of all the relevant statutes
and that it was therefore not obliged to follow it. It held that a
local social services authority does possess the power under
section 17 of the Children Act 1989 to help a family who have been
found to be intentionally homeless (or are otherwise not entitled
to help from their local housing authority) with assistance towards
their housing needs as a family.

Whether the authority chooses to exercise its powers is a matter
for its discretion, and the court of appeal declined to interfere
with Lambeth’s decision in the present case, although the court
expressed the hope that Lambeth’s children and families division
would reconsider the case of W and her family carefully in the
light of its judgement (para 87).

Comment: Although it is to be welcomed that the Court of Appeal
has rapidly returned the law to its more sensible state that social
services can provide accommodation to children, the judgement
leaves things very much in the hands of the council whether to
provide assistance or not.

In a local authority such as Lambeth simply being a family with
young children with nowhere to live may not be enough to trigger
the exercise of the power if the council thinks the reality is that
if it does not provide assistance the family will find some
accommodation somewhere (eg by staying with family or friends).
Challenging decisions of local authorities will become increasingly
difficult once they have considered and rejected the discretion to
provide services in a particular case.

Stephen Cragg

Doughty Street Chambers




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