O, R (on the application of) v London Borough of Lambeth  EWHC 937 (Admin)
A judicial review of a decision on a s.17 Children Act 1989 assessment of a homeless, non-eligible family. The issues were the extent of investigations required, and legitimate conclusions to be drawn from a lack of information provided.
The claim was brought by O, a child, through her mother PO as litigation friend. The family claimed to be homeless and destitute. PO was an overstayer, so not entitled to homeless assistance. Instead support for a child in need under s.17 Children Act was sought. The JR was of Lambeth’s decision that they were neither homeless not destitute.
At a first assessment, there were unexplained payments into PO’s account totalling about £9000 in the last year, from ‘Eze CC’. In addition, Ms J, with whom they were staying, was claiming child benefit and child tax credit for O.
On a second assessment, four months later, PO presented bank statements showing no income after the first assessment. The assessing officer concluded that PO was likely to be still receiving the funds otherwise. The inquiries made were:
i) The accounts given in the first NRPF assessment dated April 2015;
ii) The assessing social worker visited O and PO in their interim accommodation and questioned PO on 17 July 2015. She was asked about apparent inconsistencies in her account on 11 September 2015. The assessing social worker visited PO and met her again on 7 September 2015 and invited her to comment on the draft assessment. At this meeting, various questions were put to PO. In particular:
a) One of the addresses which PO said they had lived when O was born did not exist. This was put to PO and she provided no explanation.
b) PO had provided bank account details which showed that – unlike in the earlier assessment where she had received a number of payments from an Eze CC, there were no such payments. She was asked if this was O’s father who was also called Eze. She said not, but would not provide a surname for Eze CC.
c) PO said that the money which had been seen going through her account in the first assessment was money she had been given by Eze CC and CO, but this was to give to someone called “Abby”. When challenged as to why she had then spent this money, PO said she was meant to give it to Abby but had spent it on herself. (PO now accepts that this was not a true account: she now says she was in fact paid for working by Eze CC and CO, but gave an untrue account to protect them because this was illegal work, in breach of her presence conditions in the UK).
d)She wa s specifically asked for her views of the assessment but maintained that she was destitute. She was offered an opportunity to respond to or correct any issues with which she specifically disagreed but did not do so.
iii) Further, on 11 August 2015 – the assessing social worker spoke to O privately without her mother hearing the conversation. He asked her where she went by train and O answered that “they go by train to visit Uncle Michael [E]”. She added that they sometimes stay with Uncle Michael”. This was inconsistent with what O’s mother, PO, had told the social worker, which was that they had not stayed with Michael E since his mother had died. This apparent inconsistency was put to the mother, who said that O was wrong.
iv) Michael E, Eze CC and Ms J were all contacted and asked to answer questions about this, but did not co-operate or provide full answers to enquiries.
v) PO was asked to provide contact details for Eze CC so that the assessing social worker could ask him questions but she was very cagey about doing so and would only show the social worker the telephone number on her phone after she had been to the bathroom with her phone and returned. Only a mobile phone number was provided as a source of contact for “Eze CC”.
vi) A meeting was also convened on 20 October 2015, between PO, the assessing social worker’s team manager, the service manager and the mother’s representative to discus the mother’s complaint about the assessment outcome. She was invited to give any further information but declined to do so.
O argued that it was irrational for the officer to find that PO was not destitute as there was no basis to find continuing payments.
The Court found that it was a reasonable inference to draw, given that the visible payments ceased after the first negative decision and there was no satisfactory explanation of that.
In particular, Ms O was not truthful about the fact that her source of visible income from Eze CC and CO until March 2015 was work. If that was the case, and her work had stopped, she could have explained that to the social worker, or asked Eze CC to do so in a straightforward way. But she offered no satisfactory explanation for this.
O also argued that if was not rational for the officer to conclude that “O and PO did not require accommodation because it was assessed that PO had access to a more extensive network of support available to her than she was prepared to disclose in the assessment and that people in that network could continue to accommodate her.”
Again, this was a reasonable inference for the officer to draw, because of the lack of explanation from PO, Ms J, and Eze as to the history and current position.
On the extent and duty for the Council to make enquiries, the court said:
Whether or not a child is ‘in need’ for these purposes is a question for the judgement and discretion of the local authority, and appropriate respect should be given to the judgements of social workers, who have a difficult job. In the current climate, they are making difficult decisions in financially straitened circumstances, against a background of ever greater competing demands on their ever diminishing financial resources. So where reports set out social workers’ conclusions on questions of judgement of this kind, they should be construed in a practical way, with the aim of seeking to discover their true meaning (see per Lord Dyson in McDonald v Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea  UKSC 33 at ). The way they articulate those judgements should be judged as those of social care experts, and not of lawyers. Nonetheless, the decisions social workers make in such cases are of huge importance to the lives of the vulnerable children with whose interests they are concerned. So it behoves courts to satisfy themselves that there has been sufficiently diligent enquiry before those conclusions are reached, and that if they are based on rejection of the credibility of an applicant, some basis other than ‘feel’ has been articulated for why that is so.
The converse is also true. An applicant parent who is seeking to persuade a local authority that they and their child are destitute or homeless, so as to trigger the local authority’s duties of consideration under section 17 Children Act 1989 is seeking a publicly funded benefit, to which they would not otherwise be entitled, which diverts those scarce funds from other Claimants. Even the process of assessment is a call on scarce public funds. It therefore behoves such an applicant to give as much information as possible to assist the decision-maker in forming a conclusion on whether or not they are destitute.
If the evidence is that a family has been in this country, without recourse to public funds and without destitution for a number of years, reliant on either work or the goodwill and kindness of friends and family, then the local authority is entitled and indeed rationally ought to enquire why and to what extent those other sources of support have suddenly dried up. In order to make those enquiries, the local authority needs information. If the applicant for assistance does not provide adequate contact details for family and friends who have provided assistance in the past, or cannot provide a satisfactory explanation as to why the sources of support which existed in the past have ceased to exist, the local authority may reasonably conclude that it is not satisfied that the family is homeless or destitute, so that no power to provide arises.
Fairness of course demands that any concerns as to this are put to the applicant so that she has a chance to make observations before any adverse inferences are drawn from gaps in the evidence, but otherwise, the local authority is entitled to draw inferences of ‘non-destitution’ from the combination of (a) evidence that sources of support have existed in the past and (b) lack of satisfactory or convincing explanation as to why they will cease to exist in future.
In other words, if sufficient enquiries have been made by the local authority and if as a result of those enquiries an applicant fails to provide information to explain a situation which prima facie appears to require some explanation, then the failure by an applicant to give sufficient information may be a proper consideration for the local authority in drawing the conclusion that the applicant is not destitute: see per Mr Justice Leggatt in R(MN) v London Borough of Hackney  EWHC 1205 (Admin) at . But that does not absolve the local authority of its duty of proper enquiry.