Landmark ruling finds councils are liable for abuse in foster care

The Supreme Court has said a local authority was "vicariously liable" for the abuse a girl suffered in foster care in the 1980s

Photo: Konstantin Yuganov/Fotolia

Local authorities are liable for abuse suffered in foster care, following a Supreme Court ruling believed to have “enormous” implications for councils across the country.

In a judgment published yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled by a four-to-one majority that Nottinghamshire council was “vicariously liable” for the actions of two foster carers who abused claimant, Natasha Armes, when she was in their care during the 1980s.

The authority will pay damages to Ms Armes, although the exact amount is still to be decided. The court accepted the foster carers would have “insufficient means” to meet a substantial award.

Supreme Court justice Lord Reed said the relationship between the local authority and its foster carers is such that it can be properly assumed the abuse was, “committed by the foster parents in the course of an activity carried out for the benefit of the local authority”.

‘Inherent risk’

Nottinghamshire council had a duty to safeguard and promote Ms Armes’ welfare and yet recruited, trained and placed her with foster carers who went on to abuse her, emotionally and sexually.

Lord Reed said vicarious liability is “inherent” in the choice to place a child with foster carers.

“If the public bodies responsible for decision-making in relation to children in care consider it advantageous to place them in foster care, notwithstanding the inherent risk that some children may be abused, it may be considered fair that they should compensate the unfortunate children for whom that risk materialises,” he ruled.

Although foster carers have responsibility for the day-to-day management of a placement and parenting, the Supreme Court ruled it is not necessary for there to be “micro-management, or any high degree of control”, in order for vicarious liability to be imposed.

It is, however, unlikely that vicarious liability would apply to a local authority if parents or other family members have abused a child.

Serious financial impact’

Patrick Ayre, a child care consultant and an expert witness for negligence claims against local authorities, said the judgment would have “enormous” implications.

“Before this judgment, local authorities were only held liable for abuse committed by foster carers if the local authority had been negligent in the way it selected or supervised them. [Yesterday], the Supreme Court ruled that the local authority must be liable for any wrongdoing by its foster carers just as it would be for wrongdoing committed by social workers and residential care staff  directly employed by the local authority,” Ayre said.

He said this would mean children abused in foster care were able to make a claim against a local authority, and he would expect “several hundred” such claims over the next few years, with a “serious financial impact” on the authorities as a result.

Opening the floodgates

Concerns that a ruling of vicarious liability could discourage local authorities from placing children in foster care on financial grounds were, “difficult to accept”, Lord Reed said, while the risk of liability might encourage more “adequate vetting and supervision” of foster carers.

He pointed out that even if a local authority is disinclined to place a child in foster care, councils are equally vicariously liable for the abuse of children in residential care homes.

He added: “If…there is substance in the floodgates arguments advanced on behalf of the local authority – if, in other words, there has been such a widespread problem of child abuse by foster parents that the imposition of vicarious liability would have major financial and other consequences – then there is every reason why the law should expose how this has occurred”.

‘Fraught with difficulty’

Supreme Court Justices ruled four-to-one that the local authority was vicariously liable in Ms Armes’ case, but said it did not have a non-delegable duty of care.

Lord Hughes, the judge who disagreed that vicarious liability applied in this case, said that if it applied to “ordinary” foster parents on the basis they are doing the local authority’s business, it should apply to family and friends placements with connected persons.

The extension of strict liability needs “careful justification”, he warned. “Once one examines the nature of fostering, its extension to that activity does not seem to me to be either called for or justified, but, rather, fraught with difficulty and contra-indicated,” Hughes said.

Far-reaching implications

Colin Pettigrew, corporate director for children and families in Nottinghamshire, said the council accepted the court’s findings. “Ms Armes should have been safe in the care of her foster carers 30 years ago and she wasn’t, this is a matter of huge regret to us,” Pettigrew said.

“This Supreme Court determination will have far-reaching implications for us and every other local authority across the land with children’s social care responsibilities.

Pettigrew added that the Judge, at an earlier hearing, found no negligence on the part of the social workers or the local authority, and that neither was negligent in the assessment, approval, monitoring or supervision of the foster placements.

John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development at CoramBAAF, said the case would be significant, but needs to be “fully digested”.

“The case is historic and the current statutory and regulatory framework is different. But the relationship between local authorities and foster carers is complex,” Simmonds said.

He added: “The legal responsibility for the child is carried by the local authority if there is a Care Order in place and the birth family still holds parenting responsibility even if there are limitations to the way they can exercise this. There still continue to be questions about permissions for haircuts, school trips and overnight stays despite the amended regulatory framework which allows delayed responsibility.”

He said he hopes the fostering stocktake, currently being carried out by the Departmenr for Education, would debate these issues and find proposals that “protect children, assign responsibility for the overall management of the placement but never loses sises of children and young people’s need for a secure, safe, stable placement”.

More from Community Care

8 Responses to Landmark ruling finds councils are liable for abuse in foster care

  1. Stuart October 19, 2017 at 8:24 pm #

    So what does this mean for independent fostering agencies used by local authorities – if one (when one) of their foster carers abuses a child do they or the LA pay the compensation claim?
    And if it’s still the LA what impact does that have on comissioning & inspection?

    • Tim October 20, 2017 at 3:50 pm #

      The agencies have to have the same type of insurance as the local authorities so i would assume that the local authorioties would aim to utilise the agency insurance but it is a good questions because the oversight of carers is somewhat a shared endeavour following placement.

  2. Andy Merker October 19, 2017 at 9:10 pm #

    Given the rise in provision of foster placements by Independent fostering Agencies, and the increasing proportion of such foster placements being used by local authorities – would the same vicarious liability extend to this type of foster placements? If not then I think it is likely that this judgement will see a massive movement out of in house fostering provision, rather than an avoidance of foster placements per se.

  3. barry October 19, 2017 at 10:35 pm #

    I reported a child to ofstead that was being beaten up in care because the social workers were not taking this seriously I then got my self into trouble the social worker in question black listed me by making an allegation would I do it again to protect a child yes .I went through the HCPC ..
    some social workers don’t have a heart to do this job unlike foster carers we don’t get treated fairly .
    well all the news with the case above has opened the flood gates what that poor child went through

  4. Paul October 22, 2017 at 10:08 pm #

    Wat does this really mean can i now guarnteed to sue authoritys and finally get the financial recompense i deserve.

  5. Miss M Baker October 24, 2017 at 12:29 pm #

    I was abused both physically sexually and mentally by my foster dad- still waiting for answers and if I can sue local authority-

  6. Adam Croot October 28, 2017 at 8:18 pm #

    Our 7 year old daughter was left in an abusive placement for 4 1/2 years before social workers realised what was going on and moved her to a safe place. She was finally placed with us for adoption 18 months later, the ramifications of her period in abusive care are still becoming clear. not only does she suffer from attachment issues from the loss of her birth parents, but she also suffered abuse whilst in a so called “safe place” whilst being monitored by social workers, there is plenty of evidence to show social workers were aware of the abuse in care. stat visit reports alone make it clear.

    If nothing else, this decision will hopefully focus LA’s attention on what LAC’s really need and actually take action when evidence shows foster carers are not unto the task.

  7. Lesley November 4, 2017 at 7:26 am #

    It makes me feel sick to the stomach for those children who we are trying to help be safe to be in foster homes where they should be safe. Most foster carers are amazing but like in all childcare roles there are some people who will be out to harm children. If this ruling helps to ensure we all take it more seriously then it’s welcomed