S (A Child), R (on the application of) v Plymouth City Council  EWHC 1499 (Admin)
Not sure how we missed this one and thanks to the Legal Action housing updates for the elbow to the ribs.
This was a permission hearing on an application for judicial review of Plymouth Council’s handling of a child in need under s.17 Children Act 1989, specifically how accommodation needs were dealt with.
S was an 11 year old child who was autistic and had behavioural difficulties. He lived with his mother and brother. it was not in issue that he was a child in need for the purposes of the Act. The family lived in a two bed flat, which placed severe pressure on his mother and his 6 year old brother.
S.17(6) of the Children Act states:
The services provided by a local authority in the exercise of functions conferred on them by this section may include providing accommodation and giving assistance in kind or, in exceptional circumstances, in cash.
Assessment of children in need under s.17 is shaped by the 2000 guidance “Framework for the assessment of children in need and their families”, and it is made clear that Local Authorities are to have regard to this guidance and that although not statutory in effect, it should be complied with “unless local circumstances indicate exceptional reasons which justify a variation”.
The document states that a core assessment must be carried out:
“… an in-depth assessment which addresses the central or most important aspects of the needs of a child and the capacity of his or her parents or caregivers to respond appropriately to these needs within the wider family and community context.” [chapter 3.11]
and the conclusion of an assessment should result in:
• an analysis of the needs of the child and the parenting capacity to respond appropriately to those needs within their family context;
• identification of whether and, if so, where intervention will be required to secure the wellbeing of the child or young person;
• a realistic plan of action (including services to be provided), detailing who has responsibility for action, a timetable and a process for review. [chapter 4.1]
Note the emphasis on a ‘realistic plan of action’.
A core assessment had not been carried out when judicial review proceedings were issued. Over the following year (!) prior to this permission hearing, a core assessment was produced by Plymouth. The Claimant maintained that the assessment did not contain a realistic course of action. Amongst issues such as respite care and identification of carers, was the problem of accommodation for the family.
Both Social Services and housing departments accepted that the family required a 3 bed property. The mother’s transfer application had been rised to band B priority from band C in a CBL scheme, but no suitable properties had become available on which the mother’s bid was successful. Private sector accommodation had been raised as an alternative by social services. The mother would lose her secure tenancy and her transfer status, effectively starting from scratch.
There was nothing unlawful about the way her transfer application was dealt with under the allocation scheme. However, Plymouth Social Services’ position on assistance with a private sector tenancy was that they were:
willing to assist [the mother] to secure three-bedroom accommodation in the private rented sector to the extent that they will provide financial assistance by giving her money for a deposit on a property and 1 month’s rent in advance. [The mother] will be entitled to housing benefit to assist her with the rent, but if her housing benefit is less than the contractual rent, the defendants will not fund the shortfall in rent on a continuing basis, because it is likely that she will be re-housed by the housing department, provided she actively pursues her transfer application, particularly if bids for flats and maisonettes and properties in a greater number of areas in Plymouth than she has currently considered.
34. Initially it seemed to me that what Ms Thornley says in those paragraphs goes as far as Plymouth City Council could reasonably be expected to go. They plainly feel that the mother ought soon to be able to obtain adequate housing through the housing department and, accordingly, have limited their offer of assistance to S to providing a deposit and 1 month’s rent in advance. They are not willing to bridge any gap between housing benefit and actual rent, because they take the view that the mother can adequately re-house herself and her children in council housing. But I have been persuaded by Mr Wise that what Ms Thornley says in those paragraphs does not, in the end, amount to a realistic plan of action, including services to be provided. It does not engage with specifics at all. It does not identify any sample property, or properties, that Plymouth City Council put forward as appropriate for the family in the private market. It does not, accordingly, engage with the actual cost of renting such a property, nor the difference between that cost and the housing benefit to which the mother is, or may be, entitled. In other words, it is long on principle but very short on detail.
35. It does seem to me that the local authority have got to be much more proactive in working together with the mother to see exactly what might be available in the private sector, what it would cost, the extent of housing benefit that the mother can obtain towards that cost and the extent, if any, to which Plymouth City Council ought to, and is willing to, bridge any difference. In short, the alternative of renting in the private sector with financial help from Plymouth City Council needs a great deal more exploration than has so far been done. It is only when Plymouth City Council, working no doubt in co-operation with the mother, have come up with a fully-costed and detailed alternative for renting in the private sector that they can be said to have actually produced a realistic plan of action in relation to accommodation.
Permission granted for JR for a declaration that the core assessments did not yet provide the required realistic course of action. The parties urged to go back to Plymouth and focus on sensible and realistic ways of helping S.
This is useful, albeit only a permission hearing, in focussing on the kind of practical detail and concern a core assessment needs to contain. It is clear that simply identifying possible courses of action and setting a fixed response (e.g. on aid with rent) is not sufficient – the issue is what constitutes a realistic course of action.