Councils could have to justify their assessments in court in hundreds of cases where the age of an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child is disputed, following a supreme court judgement.
The judgement, in R (A) v London Borough of Croydon and R (M) v London Borough of Lambeth, and a subsequent directions hearing in December, means courts will now carry out their own “fact-finding” assessments where there is a dispute over the age of an unaccompanied asylum-seeker, to determine whether they are eligible for support from children’s services.
Previously, courts only challenged an assessment if it could be proven that the assessment process itself was flawed. Figures from the government, quoted in the directions hearing, revealed that of 4,280 unaccompanied asylum-seekers arriving in the UK in 2008, their age was disputed by immigration authorities in 1,400 cases. As of December, Croydon Council had received 180 legal challenges to assessments.
Sallie Harrington, associate in the local government team at law firm Weightmans, said social workers could now be under greater pressure to carry out more thorough assessments to avoid legal challenge and cross-examination in court. Councils were also likely to face a cost burden as cases would be longer with more hearings and more medical assessments.
Lisa Nandy, policy advisor at the Children’s Society, said social workers needed to ensure they looked at evidence that came to light after they had completed an original assessment “because the court will now consider all the evidence for itself, not simply defer to a social worker’s judgement”.