The High Court has dismissed a mother’s legal bid to overturn a social worker’s assessment that she and her daughter did not qualify for child in need support because they were not destitute.
The mother, a Nigerian national, argued that it was “irrational” for the Lambeth Borough Council social worker to reject their claim of destitution and therefore the authority’s decision not to provide the family with support was “unlawful”.
She originally came to the UK in 2007 on a six-month visa but overstayed. In 2010 she gave birth to her daughter and in 2013 the Home Office denied her application for leave to remain in the UK.
In April 2015 the mother told Lambeth Council that she and her daughter were destitute, hoping the authority would class her daughter as a child in need, which would have entitled the family to support under section 17 of the Children Act 1989.
No recourse to public funds
But a no recourse to public funds (NRPF) assessment concluded she was not destitute since her bank statements showed an income of £9,000 from March 2014 to April 2015. In addition the person they were living with at the time was claiming child tax credit and child benefit on the daughter’s behalf.
The mother requested a second NRPF assessment in July 2015 and provided bank statements showing that the payments into her bank account had ceased.
She also said they had been evicted from where they had been living and so the council provided the family with emergency accommodation.
During the second assessment the mother declined to explain why they were evicted or why the money she had been getting had stopped.
In a private conversation the daughter informed the social worker that they sometimes stayed with friends or family, contrary to the mother’s claim that they did not.
The mother also told social workers that the £9,000 paid into her account was for her to give to someone else, but refused to explain why she had spent the money if it wasn’t hers.
The social worker also concluded that the family was not destitute. In response the mother appealed to the High Court for a judicial review of the decision on the grounds that the social worker’s conclusion was “irrational” since the council had no evidence that she had an income or a more extensive support network than she had disclosed.
This, she argued, meant that Lambeth was “unlawful” in its decision not to provide her and her daughter with support under section 17 of the Children Act 1989.
But in the High Court, Judge Helen Mountfield QC backed the social worker’s conclusion and dismissed the mother’s case.
“The assessing social worker was entitled not to be satisfied that the family was destitute,” Mountfield said in her judgment.
Mountfield said the sudden, unexplained disappearance of the mother’s income after the first assessment and lack of cooperation with social workers’ reasonable enquiries “formed a rational basis” for concluding that the family was not destitute.
Gaps and inconsistencies
“Looking at the impugned NRPF assessment holistically, as I must, I find that there was adequately detailed and through enquiry, and that the conclusions which the assessing social worker drew from the fact of support previously having been available over a long time; gaps and inconsistencies in the evidence; and lack of explanation for the sudden withdrawal of this support cannot be castigated as irrational,” she ruled.
Mountfield also rejected the argument made by the mother’s barrister that the council could have done a “proactive investigation” into the family’s finances. “It is not realistic, and was certainly not a legal duty, for the social worker to seek to enquire into expenditure patterns,” Mountfield said.
Lambeth Council offered to give the family, which it was still housing at the time of the hearing, 14 days before withdrawing its support.
The council also told the court it would be willing to extend its provision of accommodation to the family for a reasonable period if the mother signs a formal undertaking that the family will return to Nigeria and co-operates with the authority.
Mountfield said Lambeth’s offers to the family were “sensible, humane and appropriate undertakings”.