Slapped wrists all round for Lewisham’s Children’s Social Care Services in another Children Act 1989 “child in need” case, but in this case the issue was not whether the claimant was a child, but whether she was “in need”.
In July 2007 the claimant, then aged 17 and a half, was referred to Lewisham’s Social Services Department by a support worker at the refuge she was staying at. The support worker told Lewisham that the claimant had come to the refuge fleeing domestic violence, she was vulnerable and lacking life skills. In the same month Lewisham decided not to support her, as they felt that she did not meet the Social Services criteria, but would benefit from other support agencies, such as a weekly drop-in session.
In August the claimant applied as homeless under the Housing Act. This got her no further forward, but after a pre-action letter got Lewisham Legal Services interested another decision was made, again not to offer support, in December. This was on the grounds that the claimant was safe in the refuge and should stay there until Housing made a decision on her. Both the July and December decisions were challenged.
The July Decision
Sir George Newman said that the July decision could not stand and the “summary consideration given to the referral fell far below the standard required by law” . The Social Worker had not made proper inquiries of the refuge or the claimant. The Social Worker’s manager had said that the referral was vague – if that was the case then further details should have been requested. Although the Social Worker claimed to have made several attempts to contact the claimant’s support worker, there were considerable discrepancies between the evidence of the refuge’s staff and Lewisham’s staff. The judge found that it was likely that the Social Worker had only left one voicemail message and had not responded when asked to give reasons why the claimant did not meet the statutory criteria for support.
Further, the Social Worker had not considered the facts that were relevant to whether the claimant was a child in need, but had concentrated on the facts that allowed Social Services to decline responsibility. The casual nature of the communications and the failure to respond to request for further information from the refuge demonstrate the summary consideration given by Lewisham’s staff to the case.
Lewisham did not consider the effects of living in a hostel on a 17 year old, or the vulnerability that they had been alerted to:
14. …It is difficult to see how any Social Services authority could have concluded that the claimant’s housing needs had been properly met for some 4 months, nor how it could have concluded that suitable accommodation could be provided in a hostel…
15. The defendant paid no proper regard to the stated vulnerability of the claimant. In so far as it paid regard to the suggested lack of life skills, it concluded that the “Big Sister Scheme” met such needs and then failed to communicate this part of its decision. It paid no regard to the fact that she had been the victim of violence and made no inquiries about the extent and nature of the violence. It assumed, without inquiry, that the “family” could assist or, if not, victim support would be adequate. The assumptions should not have been made without inquiry. Inquiry would have demonstrated them to be false and without weight.
The judge then turned to consider whether a reasonable authority would have concluded that the claimant was a child in need. In Sir George Newman’s judgment, if Lewisham had carried out the necessary enquiries it would have been bound to carry out an initial assessment and to have concluded that the claimant should be given accommodation under s. 20 of the Children Act.
The December Decision
Sir George Newman’s view of this decision is clear:
25. The assessment set out the claimant’s history in some detail. But it concluded that she was “safe in refuge and she is able to stay there until Housing make a decision as to whether they can provide her with permanent accommodation.” In my judgment, this was an unsustainable conclusion on the need for housing (whether under the Children Act or the Housing Act) and would have been equally unsustainable in August 2007. The assessment was made after cursory contact with the Housing Department and without any consideration of what would happen if the Housing Department did not accommodate her. There was no consideration of what duty Children’s Social Services may have owed to the claimant because a summary conclusion had been reached that her needs could be met by the Housing Department. There was no assessment of how her difficult background, early involvement with mental health services (which had now become apparent), breakdown of her relationship with her mother (which had now become apparent) and experience of violence would affect her as she entered adulthood. More than that, the conclusion that she could remain in the refuge was flawed because it was not informed by consideration of her anxieties of living at the refuge or the fact that she had been living at the refuge for more than nine months and that it was not and never had been appropriate accommodation for a 17 year old. Further, nobody at the refuge had been contacted to obtain information about the claimant.
He went on to say that “some thought was given to the manner in which the claimant’s needs could be met but the common underlying thought was how they could be met by others and that a core assessment would occur after she had reached the age of 18.” 
The judge made a number of other criticisms about Lewisham’s communications and the conclusions that it reached without sufficient consideration. Overall Lewisham was roundly criticised.
To tie up the loose ends, on 27th December 2007 Lewisham accepted that the claimant was homeless, in priority need and therefore entitled to accommodation under the Housing Act.
Finally the judge urged Lewisham to take action to ensure that:
- child in need assessments are not carried out in a summary manner as occurred in this case;
- that its Housing Department do not simply fail to respond to applications in respect of children;
- that steps are taken to ensure that the imminence of a child attaining 18 years is not taken as a basis for failing to take any action; and
- that there is due and proper contact between its housing authority and its Social Services authority.
That’s got to hurt.