A council has started sending all section 20 voluntary care cases involving children under 16 to legal planning meetings following critical court judgments made about their use.
Leicester council said this decision was in response to a 2015 judgment by Family Court president Sir James Munby, which criticised widespread “misuse and abuse” of section 20 arrangements and set out guidance social workers should follow.
It said the move was to “ensure the legality of the placement (in accordance with the judgment) and to outline appropriate plans in relation to the child or children”.
Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 gives councils the power to accommodate a child to safeguard or promote their welfare – but not if a person with parental responsibility who is willing and able to house the child objects. It does not require a court order.
In a recent quality assurance report submitted to the council, the policy of sending cases to legal planning meetings was identified as one of a suite of measures to help improve services and planning for looked-after children in Leicester.
A council spokesperson said the additional oversight meant it could assure itself and the families that it was following good practice. Cases involving children over 16 years old may still go through a legal planning meeting depending on the circumstances, the spokesperson said.
Munby raised concerns that councils were failing to get informed consent from the parents to the arrangement, that consent was not being recorded effectively, that the arrangements went on for far too long and that local authorities were reluctant to return children to parents once consent was withdrawn.
Since the judgment, care applications have hit record highs, and experts have partly attributed this to local authorities re-examining section 20 cases and issuing care proceedings in some of these.