Council failed to consider woman’s human rights when entering home without legal basis, says watchdog

Ombudsman finds Dudley council’s actions in safeguarding case failed to consider professional guidance and woman’s wishes, breaching her privacy and causing her distress

woman holding at the door using the old knock door
Photo: cunaplus/fotolia

Story updated to include comment from Dudley council

A council had “no regard for its responsibilities” to uphold a woman’s right to private life… when it entered her home without the legal basis to do so following safeguarding concerns, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has found.

Dudley council social workers used a key safe to enter Mrs C’s property, without informing her beforehand, so that it could speak to her alone to investigate concerns raised about her son, Mr B.

However, the watchdog found it had  failed to consider the women’s wishes not to speak to social workers or professional guidance on powers of entry in safeguarding cases, which says practitioners should use negotiation and persuasion first to gain access to individuals.

In doing so, it breached Mrs C’s wishes, caused her distress and failed to take account of its responsibilities under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights to uphold her rights to private and family life.

Dudley has accepted the ombudsman’s judgment and agreed to apologise to Mrs C, pay her £100 for the distress caused and provide advice to all relevant staff to ensure individual wishes and relevant guidance are considered when making decisions about how safeguarding enquiries should be carried out.

Reluctance to speak to social workers

In February 2019, while looking into safeguarding concerns, Manager A, from the council, agreed that with Mr B and Mrs C that, if the authority wanted to make contact with Mrs C, it would make initial arrangements through her son.

Audio recordings provided by Mr B made clear that Mrs C, who received care at home, did not wish to speak to social workers at that time and that if she had concerns she would tell someone.

In May 2019, the council received safeguarding concerns from Mrs C’s carers about Mr B, which were referred to the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH). Because the allegations concerned Mr B, the council did not abide by the February 2019 agreement before seeking to speak to Mrs C, lest this increase risk to her or the potential for coercion or duress.

In June 2019 social workers visited Mrs C at home to ascertain whether to make safeguarding enquiries under section 42 of the Care Act.

Entry gained without legal basis

CCTV shows the council visited Mrs C at home alone and gained entry using the key safe outside her house, for which it already held the access code, without ringing the doorbell or knocking first. Internal emails showed that it considered she wouldn’t be able to get to the door.

Without Mrs C’s consent or the use of specific court-sanctioned legal powers, practitioners had no legal basis to enter her property.

The council said there was already agreement for its home care staff to use the key safe. But the ombudsman said this did not extend to other council staff and also that Dudley had not considered alternative legal means to gain entry.

The council noted Mrs C’s previously expressed wishes in the case notes and said it would need to consider them further after a strategy meeting, but the ombudsman found no evidence indicating the council did this.

After visiting Mrs C, the council recorded in the case notes that it had obtained Mrs C’s consent. However, the case notes also showed that Mrs C was unhappy and that she wanted Mr B to be present. The council accepted that this was a recording error and has agreed to correct it.

Failure to consider professional guidance

The ombudsman report referenced 2014 government-commissioned guidance from the Social Care Institute for Excellence on gaining access to adults at risk of abuse or neglect, which states that, where councils cannot gain access, it should seek to resolve the situation through negotiation and building trust, before resorting to legal powers.

Mr B said that the council did not follow the guidance, but Dudley claimed it did so because it entered the house to attempt to negotiate Mrs C’s consent to speak to her about the safeguarding concern.

However, said it was clear that the SCIE guidance made clear that negotiation with the person had to be pursued before gaining access and not afterwards and the council had already entered Mrs C’s house without consent before it spoke to her to ‘negotiate’.

He found no evidence to show the council considered the SCIE guidance.

‘No regard’ for Article 8 responsibilities

In relation to Article 8, the ombudsman said: “Mrs C’s privacy was breached and she suffered distress.

“[The council] appears to have had no regard for its responsibilities and considerations under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Nicolas Barlow, cabinet member for health and adult social care at Dudley council, said: “Dudley council accepts the finding of the ombudsman and would like to re-iterate our apology to Mrs C…”

“The council has provided updated guidance to staff to ensure individual wishes are taken into account in S42 safeguarding enquiries and also to ensure decisions and the supporting rationale for safeguarding investigations are fully documented.

“The council acted in good faith to respond to a number of safeguarding concerns and had no intention to disregard Mrs C’s wishes.

“Accurate record keeping and reviewing case histories are a key facet of effective safeguarding and appropriate steps have been taken to make the necessary improvements and all of the Ombudsman’s requirements have been adhered to.

“The council notes the LGO found the council complaint process to had been appropriately adhered to and that the council closed the safeguarding investigation appropriately.”

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13 Responses to Council failed to consider woman’s human rights when entering home without legal basis, says watchdog

  1. Spidergirl February 4, 2021 at 6:06 pm #

    Damned if we do, and damned if we don’t then eh.

    • Laura February 6, 2021 at 9:32 am #

      Indeed! And they wonder why so many social workers are going out of social work practice…!

    • Annoyed February 7, 2021 at 4:02 pm #

      No, only damned if you do.

      You cannot enter a property without consent or a warrant. This is a complete breach of her rights. There’s no two ways about this. Just because there’s a safeguarding raised doesn’t mean that suddenly her rights stop mattering.
      Honestly it’s this kind of attitude that is responsible for the ongoing deprivation of liberty cases and human rights breaches that the most vulnerable in society suffer.

      If you work in this field you need to do better and be better. Her rights come above all else.

  2. Margaret Lally February 5, 2021 at 6:57 pm #

    If something had happened to that lady whose carers clearly had concern and who was unable to answer her door, then the Social Work Team would have been investigated for Neglect and there may have been yet another Critical Inquiry into the death of a vulnerable person in receipt of care and support

  3. Experto Crede February 5, 2021 at 7:12 pm #

    No. It’s about respecting that the law is there to protect all. Including vulnerable persons.

  4. Candyfloss February 6, 2021 at 6:43 am #

    Try quoting this at coroner’s court when a person dies. Why do we not have the option to apply for a power of entry like Scotland?

    • Jiggy jiggy February 10, 2021 at 7:03 pm #

      If they had that option there would be no problem!! The problem is they overstepped the guidlines, in what in this case probably was justified however if it becomes common practice then it becomes a worrying abuse of power.

  5. Beth king February 6, 2021 at 5:08 pm #

    What an impossible job social workers have. Tie their hands behind their backs and expect them to safeguard vulnerable adults and children.

  6. Joy mccalla February 8, 2021 at 6:42 am #

    I totally agree that it’s dam if we don’t and dam if we do. What else can we so . Yes no wonder there will always be a shortage of sw as people leave the profession or chose not to take up sw as a career.

  7. Anonymous February 8, 2021 at 6:51 am #

    An interesting one… is this the first time SCIE guidance has been referenced as not being adhered to?

    This is not a dammed it you do dammed if you don’t situation. As with most ombudsman findings, The council still could have done what they did, but they needed to respect the lady’s privacy too and know the limits of their power. If they couldn’t persuade her or find an alternative route in, they could have gone to the courts for approval if they were that concerned. This is why the guidance is written. People just have to read it.

    The real problem here is probably a lack of time to make appropriate decisions, due to caseload pressures. Council need to allow social workers and team managers time to stay up to date with their professional knowledge. GP’s have 10% every working week for training.

  8. Tom J February 8, 2021 at 3:17 pm #

    If we buy the argument that this was a case of The State illegally entering into a private citizens house, £100 does seem a bit derisory.

    If an agency of The State illegally entered into my house today; and I then went through the lengthy complaints process, I would expect more than £100. What would The State have to do to me to warrant a £200 fine?

  9. Jiggy jiggy February 10, 2021 at 7:00 pm #

    A person dies? It was an unsubstantiated allegation regarding her son, not her. Otherwise we could all go around saying we have concerns about someone’s safety and letting ourselves into someone’s home.

  10. Toni February 15, 2021 at 6:01 pm #

    Social workers would be the first to be outraged if the police entered peoples houses without legal authority to do so wouldn’t you?