Reflections on Challenging Local Authority Refusals of Assistance to Families with No Recourse To Public Funds

This is an article which I wrote for the January 2023 Housing Rights NewsLetter. The full Newsletter can be accessed here. 

A solicitor reflects on helping people with “no recourse” William Flack, a solicitor working with Morrison Spowart Solicitors in Catford, South East London, reflects on the cruelty involved in cases where migrant families are refused support under section 17 of the Children Act 1989.

During the last ten years or so I have worked on several cases involving families with children with no recourse to public funds who had been unlawfully refused support by local authorities which they were entitled to under Section 17 of Children Act 1989. These cases often involved what can only be described as appalling behaviour on the part of social workers and the lawyers representing them, reflecting the government’s “hostile environment” for people considered to be in the UK illegally. Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 sets out a duty for councils to provide accommodation and/ or financial support for destitute children and their families.

As a result of many migrant families having no recourse to mainstream housing or benefits it was necessary for those who had nowhere to live and no income to apply for assistance under the Children Act. It then fell to social workers to assess whether the families were destitute and if so to provide them with support. This led to staff looking for ways to find that the parents were falsely claiming to be destitute with a view to fraudulently obtaining resources from the council. Staff carrying out assessments would frequently resort to very unpleasant tactics to discredit the parents and justify a refusal to assist them. These included:

• Refusing to believe their account of events on the basis that what they were saying was “inconceivable.” That word was used a lot.
• Calling relatives and ex-partners and putting pressure on them to accommodate children without any proper assessment of whether it was in the children’s best interests.
• Referring the applicants to their fraud teams so they were treated like criminal suspects
• Arranging for uniformed Border Force officers to sit in on interviews primarily to intimidate the parents and make them worry that they might be detained and deported at any minute.

An example is the case of R (CO & Anor) v LB Lewisham Council 2017 where the applicant informed the council that she and her two children (aged 9 and 12) were sleeping in a hospital waiting area, but social workers refused to believe this and added that if it was true she was putting the children through this deliberately in order to obtain council accommodation. I was never able to understand why the social workers did not refer families to advisers who could assist them in regularising their immigration status and/ or obtaining recourse to public funds. I believe that this and even paying the necessary fees would have been a perfectly legal discharge of the council’s duties, but it never happened in my experience. It seemed that the priority was to treat the families with hostility.

What was particularly distressing about these cases was the casual cruelty and indifference to the suffering of often very young children shown by social workers who were supposed to have been trained to safeguard their wellbeing. This did not just involve denying them support they obviously needed but also shouting at parents or having them thrown out of council offices by security despite the distress caused to the children who were with them.

Abusive behaviour also spread to the council's lawyers who would routinely make allegations of dishonesty and malpractice against those representing applicants. A newly qualified lawyer I knew was caused considerable distress by being falsely accused of misleading the court.

I have worked with the charity Project 17 on a number of these cases. Their compassion and determination in assisting destitute migrant families goes a long way to restoring the faith in human nature which I lost as a result of the behaviour of council staff

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