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Courts, not councils, must decide on child protection

22 December 2009

Courts and local authorities have different roles to play in protecting children from harm, the Supreme Court has stressed, in a case involving an abused baby boy.

Giving judgment in S-B (Children) [2009] UKSC 17, Lady Hale said the point needed to be emphasised “given the understandable concerns in the wake of the ‘Baby P’ case that social workers and other professionals were not being sufficiently active in their protective role, and the resulting increase in the numbers of care proceedings”.

She went on: “The court subjects the evidence of the local authority to critical scrutiny, finds what the facts are, makes predictions based upon the facts, and balances a range of considerations in deciding what will be best for the child?

“We should no more expect every case which a local authority brings to court to result in an order than we should expect every prosecution brought by the CPS to result in a conviction.”

Lady Hale said it was for the court to decide whether the case is made out. “If every child protection case were to result in an order, it would mean either that local authorities were not bringing enough cases to court or that the courts were not subjecting those cases to a sufficiently rigorous scrutiny.”

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the judge in S-B had misdirected herself in expressing a view that it was 60 per cent likely that the father had abused the boy, referred to as ‘Jason’, and that such percentages were unhelpful.

Lady Hale said even where the court has identified a perpetrator, all the evidence relating to all the risk factors identified by the judge remained relevant in deciding what was best for the child.

“And he must remain alive to the possibility of mistake and be prepared to think again if evidence emerges which casts new light on the evidence which led to the earlier findings.”

The Supreme Court ruled that the decision to remove both Jason and his brother, who had not been abused, should be remitted to a different judge.

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Discrimination Tribunals & Courts Children Local government