The Howard League for Penal Reform says young offenders leaving custody could receive more support from local authorities thanks to a Court of Appeal ruling against Sutton Council, London, last week.
The court overturned a High Court judgement that a girl, known as “J”, was not eligible for accommodation as a looked-after child because she had accepted a place in Wayside hostel for homeless women, Redhill, Surrey, on leaving Medway Secure Training Centre, Kent, in November 2006, aged 17.
The Court of Appeal ruled that Sutton Council had “sidestepped” its responsibilities under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 to accommodate the girl, who was estranged from both her parents, by arranging the hostel placement and encouraging her to declare herself homeless.
Though J had said that she did not want to be accommodated by Sutton, Lord Justice Hooper said the council had failed to provide the young woman, now 18, with adequate choices about her resettlement.
Under section 20 of the act, local authorities have a duty to provide accommodation for children in need, where their parents or carers cannot or will not look after them.
Chris Callender, assistant director and head of the legal team at the Howard League for Penal Reform, which represented J, said the case meant councils would be less able to designate young offenders leaving custody with no home to go to as homeless, rather than looked-after.
He added: “Local authorities up and down the country are trying to sidestep their duties. Whereas before there may have been an argument about whether section 20 applies, now there can’t be.”
In a statement, the council said: “The council worked hard to accede to her wishes, in line with the local authority’s legal obligations. The judgement does not mean that local authorities will have to look after children who leave custody as a matter of course.”